Title: Mutable: Chapter Fifteen, Part One
Chapter Fifteen, Part One
It felt strange to be stepping out into actual sunlight again, although the shadows on the ground were strange here. Imperia was closer to the central sun than Leelinge was, and although the atmosphere was thicker as well, the toplit clouds looming over the skyline felt oppressive. The air was warm, almost hot, and slightly hazy. Cas blinked, disconcerted, and the phage almost blinked with him. Keep it together.
He wrapped his hand more tightly around Rone’s arm. His husband glanced his way with a faint smile, but that was as far as it went. It wasn’t surprising—in moments they were surrounded by red-jacketed retainers and decorated nobility, come to chivvy them into the elaborate hovercraft a dozen meters away and off to the palace.
The man who seemed to be in charge of the entourage was tall, almost as tall as Rone, with lighter skin and darker eyes. He had a face like a salamander—wide, flat, and unemotional. “My prince.” His smile might as well have not even been there. “Welcome back to Obsidian. Congratulations on the success of your mission.”
“Thank you, Lord Freyne.”
“Is this your new spouse?” There was no inflection in the man’s voice when he looked at Cas, but there were oceans of judgement in his eyes. “How charming. Honored to make your acquaintance, Prince-Consort.” He bowed very slightly.
Cas had been paying attention during his lessons, and he knew enough to incline his head back. “And I yours, Lord Freyne,” he replied with perfect composure. He wasn’t going to play the wide-eyed backwater boy here, much as it might fit his profile. It would have been believable for Beren, but Cas felt a need—a determination—to make Rone proud of him. That was also something Beren would have felt, and it would have stiffened his otherwise-overwhelmed spine.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, cousin,” Rone warned as they started to walk toward the hovercraft. He sounded pleasant enough, but Cas could feel the tension in his arm. “Beren hasn’t been confirmed for that title yet. I’d appreciate you not putting words in my brother’s mouth before we’ve even seen him.”
“Forgive me, my prince.” An elegant walkway extended from the craft to the ground. Two guards bowed sharply as Rone led the way inside. “I simply thought that since you had decided to marry again without consulting your brother, it stood to reason you wouldn’t stand on other formalities with him as well.”
Cas wanted to turn around and kick this guy in the teeth himself, but instead he let his jaw drop as they entered the hovercraft. This was…it was…good grief, it was possibly the richest, most sumptuous place Cas had ever been in, and it was barely as big as their living room had been on board the ship. Soft, rich red cloth covered every sitting surface, and the walls were sheathed in white stone and edged in gold. The air smelled like a sweet, smoky perfume, and Cas took one deep, sharp inhale to get it into the back of his nose where the phage could test it for toxins. After a few moments, it relaxed and so did he. Pretty-smelling air. Wow.
Rone, meanwhile, was clearly annoyed and not trying too hard to hide it. “Seeing as my personal life has never been circumscribed by my brother, since I’m not in the direct line for the throne, there’s no reason for him to have been consulted on the matter, although obviously we’ve spoken about it several times. Really, cousin, you must be overtired to make such careless mistakes. Have your children been keeping you up late?”
Lord Freyne’s nostrils flared slightly, a sure sign he was getting angry. “You know that my children are with their mother on the other continent.”
“Are they? Still? I take it you’ve not managed a reconciliation with Phedre, then.” Rone shook his head. “What a shame. Shall we sit?”
The three of them sat, facing opposite each other on long, luxurious couches. Guards filled the rest of the space, as well as a few other uniformed hangers-on and lower level nobles, from the look of their accoutrements. Cas hadn’t been expecting the jewelry. He’d seen the pictures in the vids, and Rone wore his earrings with perfect ease, but the rest…rings, bracelets, studs through the nose and the labrum and even the skin between the fingers…it was so…much.
Military probably isn’t allowed that kind of decoration, he thought absently. Not that most of them could afford it either, most likely.
A woman in a uniform that covered her up to her neck offered drinks in low, round crystal glasses without stems, all bright red. Did they ever give the color scheme a rest? “Pomegranate port,” Rone explained to Cas as he took a glass for himself. “It’s a traditional welcome-home offering. You don’t have to drink it, though.”
“He looks rather young to be drinking anything that doesn’t come through a straw,” Lord Freyne remarked. “How old is your new husband again? Might you have been better off adopting this one too?”
Okay, that was enough of that. Cas took his glass, smiled at Lord Freyne, then tipped the entire thing back down his throat in one long swallow.
It was definitely strong, burning as it went. Cas could tell from the air of anticipation in the room that everyone expected him to start coughing. But he’d been raised on cavern rotgut, and Beren was the same. Even without the phage’s help, it wouldn’t have provoked a reaction.
He lowered the glass and smiled sheepishly at Rone. “I’m sorry, I probably should have sipped that. I must be thirsty. Could I have some water?”
Rone squeezed his free hand as he finished off his own drink. “Of course you can.” A glass appeared in front of Cas before he could blink. “Bring back the bottle of port as well,” Rone told the server.
“It’s not even another five minutes to the palace,” Lord Freyne protested. “Surely you can wait to indulge in more.”
“Oh no, the bottle is for you, cousin,” Rone said. “I thought it might be more palatable for you to drink out of something less complicated than a glass. You haven’t even managed a single sip yet, after all.” His smile fell away. “Or do you not want to welcome us home?”
“I came to get you, didn’t I?” He drank nevertheless, setting the glass down immediately and waving off the bottle with an irritated glare. “There were some in court who wanted to let you make your own way over from the military base.”
“Myself included. I would have preferred to settle my people before heading to the palace.”
“Then you shouldn’t have gone and gotten married, should you? You could have had things your own way, otherwise.” Lord Freyne leaned back a bit. “It’s refreshing to see you following your brother’s orders with such alacrity, though. I thought you’d forgotten how.”
“When one is surrounded by enemies on all sides, one tends to forget a lot of things,” Rone mused. “Including how to behave to their prince. Fortunately, those days are over.” He looked implacable. “My latest mission was a success, and now I have my promised half-year of leave from the military. There will be plenty of time to spend with my children, my husband, and of course with my beloved king and his courtiers. I think it’s past time that I renewed my bonds there.”
Lord Freyne looked a bit sick. “I thought you would be going to your country home. Your children would surely prefer—”
“They would prefer to be with me, and to get to know their new parent. And I prefer to remain close to my brother’s side for now. He and I have much to discuss, after all.”
Cas glanced up at his husband, impressed. In a few short sentences he’d made it clear that he knew there was a lot of power-brokering going on under the surface at court, and that he planned to make a mess of some very meticulous schemes. It wouldn’t make Cas’s mission any easier, but it would certainly be interesting to watch.
“We’re here, sire,” the pilot called from the front. A few seconds later the hovercraft set down, as lightly as a drop of water falling into a pond. The side door opened, and bright light flooded in.
Rone kept hold of Cas’s hand as he stood. “Here we are.”
Here they were. One step closer to hunting down Christala. Cas could hardly wait.
“Let’s go pay our respects to the king.”