(chapter continued from previous post)
Tyrel felt his ears flatten, and forced himself to relax physically. He couldn’t help if Narcissa had to banish her unruly pet. Would she spot it? The same sunlight that would help hide her would do the same for him, especially without eye contact.
Evander would probably see, but how could he tell Narcissa, either?
He lost track of the formal greetings, mind racing. How could he alert Narcissa?
The prince couldn’t have changed long ago, since there was no obvious discrepancy between his age and Narcissa’s; his skin might have been aristocrat-fair to begin with, since locally sun-weathered skin was often equated with menial outdoors jobs, so it was impossible to tell whether it was growing paler with a more nocturnal existence. His choice of a chair in the shade of another potted tree might be upper-class habit, or might be discomfort in the sun’s full glare. His clothes smelled like real linen and dyes and soaps, but then, so did Narcissa’s.
Narcissa re-seated herself regally, and let her hand drop to Tyrel’s back, fingers combing through his fur.
“I hope you’ll forgive the visit at short notice as the concern of an old friend,” Brykhon was saying. “When I heard, I was appalled. To be assaulted and wounded in broad daylight, in one of your own cities, while announcing one of your usual thankless charitable projects, and I’m told you were locked out of the building? Whoever’s responsible has been punished, I trust?”
“We’re both fine,” Narcissa assured him. “Yes, I was injured, but it was very slight, and it’s healing quite cleanly. The door being locked was an accident in a moment of panic, and was my own fault as much as any other. I hesitated when I saw the bear, fearing that it was from Neaira, though I now know otherwise. No one has been punished and no one will be.”
Brykhon sighed indulgently, and Tyrel could almost see the thoughts: Softhearted woman. “I gather you didn’t even grant yourself well-deserved time to rest and recover. It would have been a terribly upsetting shock for anyone. Narcissa, you’re valuable to your family and your country and to your friends. You really must take better care of yourself. Had I been here, I would have insisted you take some time to yourself.”
That was enough to distract Tyrel briefly. Oh, would you? On what authority?
“I prefer to keep busy,” Narcissa said patiently. “That’s better for me than hiding in my bedroom and weeping. What are you doing, little one?” The last was as Tyrel hopped off the stool and ventured over to sniff at Brykhon. “She won’t bite. She’s quite tame.”
Brykhon leaned down to run a heavy hand over Tyrel’s head and down his back; Tyrel arched his spine away from it, but didn’t dodge it entirely. “Clearly a fox, not a lap-dog, but such an unusual colour.”
“She was a gift. Apparently, north of here, some one in four are similar to this. She seems to be curious about you.”
“That’s all right. A large dog would be better protection, but for a lady’s house pet, she’s a pretty little thing.”
“I’ve never cared much for large dogs. Great ungainly things, shedding and drooling on everything and knocking things over, and more often than not hard on my plants. I suppose I should consider getting one, as additional security.”
Tyrel went up on his back feet, one forepaw braced on Brykhon’s leg, and pawed at his arm with the other forepaw. It took considerable concentration to keep his ears forward and his tail waving lazily, displaying friendly interest when what he wanted to do was go for Brykhon’s throat—and small though he might be in fox-form, he could certainly get his jaws around an exposed human throat.
Stay all cocky, don’t look at my eyes, don’t bother to confirm that I’m really an animal. But then, bear and eagle and wolverine and even Neoma’s a wolf, you lot are all bigger flashier animals, aren’t you? Nothing as humble as a fox.
“Playful, too,” Brykhon chuckled, rubbing behind Tyrel’s ears.
“Oh dear, she’s hurt you,” Narcissa said in dismay.
Brykhon looked down at the scratches on his arm, and shrugged. “My hound bitch’s pups have done worse. There’s no need to suddenly become the healer. The issue at hand here is whether you are safe.”
Yes, from you.
Even in the sunlight, to moonblood eyes the pale aquamarine sheen of his blood was perceptible. Tyrel snuck a quick look at Evander, while tolerating more petting; though Evander was very good at staying absolutely impassive outwardly, his eyes flicked from the scratches up to Brykhon’s eyes.
At least Evander saw it now. He could only hope Narcissa had, as well. There was only so much he could do without creating a scene, and he was fortunate that drawing even that trace of blood hadn’t done so. He ducked under Brykhon’s hand and trotted back to his own stool. Narcissa immediately reached over to pet him soothingly.
Very low, too quiet for human ears to pick up, no more than a rumbling vibration deep in his chest, he growled. Narcissa’s hand stilled briefly, and she tapped with one finger, an acknowledgement. She at least knew he was a threat, and she was smart, she’d probably worked it out.
“You needn’t fear for me. My household isn’t large but it works very efficiently and they’ve been taking very good care of me, even beyond their usual.”
“But are you safe?” he persisted. “I gather your bodyguard was little help, although you’ve told me before that they’re the best. But then, I always did have some doubts about the effectiveness of women as guards.”
“It was a great bear, an eagle, and an archer with a gastraphete,” Narcissa said, her voice still calm though Tyrel felt her fingers flex, the nails grazing his skin. “Two were injured badly in defending me, and they all did their best against an enemy that could have killed all four, had we not had the help of a wolf large enough to challenge the bear and no more natural than it and the eagle. We were fortunate enough to have both what I believe is divine intervention, in the form of that wolf, and a group of altruistic foreigners who have encountered such threats elsewhere in the world.”
“Leading to men living in your household, in violation of your vows?”
You’re jealous, Tyrel thought. She won’t let you past the courtyard, but Madoc and I are living here. Kieran too now, but you don’t know that.
“One of them gave his life for mine, in taking the arrow meant for me. His companions, in accordance with their own customs, can only honour his death by completing the task he died doing. Until then, they will not pursue relations even with their own wives. They’ve certainly proven themselves well able to respond to unusual threats, and I cannot be certain that there will not be more such. Under the circumstances, it would be ungrateful, foolish, and pointless to do anything save invite them into my household for the time being. They understand and respect my vow, and my staff all assure me that they have shown only courtesy and decorum.”
Tyrel wondered fleetingly whether Narcissa or Evander or both had, in fact, been checking with the staff about the behaviour of the newcomers. It was quite likely, and quite sensible.
Brykhon held up both hands in a gesture of surrender, smiling, though Tyrel doubted it went below the surface. “I’m only concerned that you haven’t been taken advantage of at a vulnerable moment. If they’re well-behaved and you feel safer having them here, then I’m all in favour.”
As though the barbarians are the equivalent of guard dogs. And there you go again, like it matters whether you approve. She’s not your wife. Except possibly in your own mind.
“Thank you,” Narcissa said. “I assure you, I do feel quite safe, even with two of my regular guards currently off-duty. The two women among the foreigners are quite as fierce as their men, and no less determined to do honour to their companion.”
“Perhaps it would be wisest to leave Phleion for the time being. Enodia, even.”
“And go where?”
“Come to Dromas. I’ll see to it personally that you have the welcome and hospitality due to you. And surely it would be more difficult for an enemy to even find you there, and more difficult for one to hurt you. Our royal security is more strict than Enodia’s.”
Is that genuine anxiety in your voice? I think it is.
“Thank you for the thought, Brykhon, but I have work to do. To leave now would mean the failure of the public hospitals, and I’m unwilling to allow that to happen. If I wished for royal security, I’d go back to the palace in Orthia, but that would be little better as far as my work.”
“Narcissa, please. I fear for you. It appears to be your work that is driving others to seek to harm you. Is it worth your safety? Your life?”
“To make countless other lives better and more secure? Yes, it would be, unquestionably.”
Brykhon hesitated, briefly silent. Tyrel studied him thoughtfully. The prince really was agitated, though Tyrel was less sure of the reason behind it. His gaze flickered to Evander, then back to Narcissa. “Please, can we talk alone? You’ve known me long enough to know that I’d never do anything to violate your honour.”
Being entirely alone with a man she’s not related to, as I understand it, could arguably do that.
Narcissa sighed. “I keep no secrets from my cousin, you know that, but if you insist. Give us a moment?”
“I’ll be nearby,” Evander said, rising. Tyrel suspected he’d have objected more, had he not known Tyrel was there still. Quite a substantial sign of trust, that. Tyrel tracked his departure by sound, and wasn’t surprised that he stayed in the courtyard, though he did withdraw to the far side where potted trees and plants broke up the line of sight.
Brykhon abandoned his own chair and took Evander’s, much closer to Narcissa.
“Thank you for indulging me. This truly is something I prefer to keep between us.”
“Then best you say it, before Evander returns or one of my staff interrupt to offer wine.”
“This must not be repeated.”
“Of course not.”
Of course, I’m not the only one who can hear you right now. Kieran’s hearing in amarog-form is excellent, and he’s just out of sight above us. Kaveri might well be keeping him from attacking you, he’s not entirely rational about your bloodline. Madoc and Mirren and Hermia and Melanippe are on this floor and closer than you think, my family can certainly hear you perfectly clearly and Hermia and Melanippe might. Narcissa won’t have to repeat anything, if this is of any interest to us.
He paused, licked his lips nervously. “Within the governments, not only of Enodia and Dromas but others, nearby and farther away, there exists an invisible cabal that orchestrates and coordinates key events. Its members support each other in gaining useful positions, which are not always the highest or most public ones.”
(chapter continued next post!)