Title: Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Six, Part One
Chapter Twenty-Six, Part One
Expected or not, there was still a lot of pomp involved in visiting the king. Cas got back into his stiff ceremonial outfit, fitting the sash over his shoulder and fastening it in place with the enormous pin that had to be tradition—Imperians had much better methods of fastening their clothes. Rone dressed up too, and their honor guard fell into step behind them as soon as they left the suite. Commander Darven was one of them, and Cas knew he wasn’t imagining the man’s careful looks as they headed out toward the hovercraft. Look all you want, you won’t see anything I don’t want you to see.
Cas kept his demure Beren-mask in place, holding onto Rone’s arm like a proper spouse would. He sat neatly across from him, took pomegranate liquor when it was offered, and kept his eyes mostly on his hands. Honestly, it was more of a show than the situation merited, but there was no telling who might be watching them, or how. If Cas had learned one thing over the past day, it was not to underestimate Christala. He hoped he’d be able to put and end to this soon. The longer it dragged on, well…the more people were going to get hurt.
He remembered one of their training assignments, to infiltrate a Leelinger nightclub and come back with at least five more potential identities. Cas had ended up mimicking one of the bartenders, and stayed long enough to copy data from over seventeen IDs and make some truly horrible drinks. When Christala went in, though…she set the place on fire.
She’d run out with the tail end of the crowd, blending into their midst perfectly, but her pockets had been filled with pilfered data cards. Ten people had suffered from smoke inhalation. One had almost died.
Their instructor had failed her. She hadn’t cared.
“You look pensive, sweetheart.”
Cas glanced up at Rone. “Just nervous,” he said for the sake of their company. Just like that sweetheart had definitely been. “I’ve only met your brother one time before this, after all. I think a few nerves are in order.”
“Are you kidding? He loves you. He thinks you’re a good influence on me.”
Wait, was this…real, or part of the act. “Really? Me?”
“I’m serious. He says you’re sweet, and I need more sweetness in my life that isn’t going to grow up and go through puberty on me. Someone who’ll stick around.”
Cas tried to smile. “The kids aren’t going to grow up all that quickly, Rone.”
“But they’ll still grow up.” He glanced out the window, watching the buildings go by. “And I won’t be around to see a lot of it, so I’m especially grateful that you’ll be there for them when I can’t be.”
What was this all about? Cas felt his heartbeat pick up speed, and the phage pulled inside of him like an ocean responding to the tide. “I’ll always be there for them,” he said, his mouth feeling inexplicably dry. “And you.”
“I know you will.” Rone reached out and took Cas’s hand just as the hovercraft began to slow. They stood up together, and Rone bent forward for a kiss before Cas could pull away. He didn’t want to pull away either, the confusion he felt a distant second to the sheer satisfaction that came from kissing this man. Still his man, still his husband. For now, and that was all that mattered.
“Let’s go inside,” Rone murmured against his lips. Cas nodded.
“Lead the way.”
The were stopped at the door by a “welcoming party” consisting of three over-excited children hopping around, Tiyana with the baby on her hip, and Lord Freyne with a look as sweet as a sulfur spring.
“Daddy!” Lilah threw herself at Rone, who picked her up and swung her into an embrace. Shar stopped in front of Cas and motioned him down with his hand.
“What is it?” Cas asked. Shar looked at him slyly and held up a bright yellow spoon. A second later the spoon “vanished” down his sleeve. He shook his hand and caught it expertly between his index finger and thumb.
It was a good start to the trick. Cas laughed and squeezed his shoulder. “Very nice.”
“He won’t show me how to do it!” Gale—the older prince, Cas remembered—howled. “Make him show me how!”
“Gale!” Tiyana looked like she was coming up on the end of her rope. “What did I tell you about yelling?” The baby, clearly inspired by all the commotion, began to yell too. “Oh my stars, just wonderful.”
“I can take him, since Riina’s not here,” Lord Freyne offered, but Tiyana waved him away.
“I can manage just fine, thank you.” She turned away from him and rolled her eyes slightly at Cas, who suppressed a smile. “Beren, will you help me direct this horde back into the playroom?”
“Of course.” Cas stood up and took Shar’s hand, and was surprised when Lilah insinuated herself onto his other side. They followed Tiyana—not without a backward glance from Cas, who relaxed a little when he saw Rone nod minutely at him. All right then, they’d divide and conquer today.
The playroom was immense, built on the lines of a castle, with every toy a child could want and some Cas couldn’t even identify. “All right, hooligans,” Tiyana said, pointing at a section of floor in the middle of the room that seemed oddly liquid. “There are five crystal coins hidden in the mush pit. Once you find them all, we’ll have a snack.”
“Cupcakes?” Lilah asked sweetly, like the little bargainer she was.
“If cook has some on hand. Ready, set…go!” The three older kids ran for the—mush pit, Cas supposed, and he didn’t really get it until he saw how the floor flexed and folded around their legs once they reached it, sinking them up to their waists.
“That should hold them for a while,” Tiyana announced, sitting down on a soft, moldable chair with a sigh. “They’ve been up since before the sun waiting for you and Rone to arrive.”
“I didn’t think we’d be such an event,” Cas said, joining her in a chair. It felt like being cradled in an immense hand.
“Don’t undersell yourself, you’re still the biggest news we’ve had for weeks around here.” She caught her breath, one hand going to her stomach as the baby patted her shoulder.
“Are you all right?” Cas asked hesitantly. Oh please, don’t let her be the one. It would be a masterful stroke on Christala’s part, to remove and impersonate Amiru’s wife, but—
“No, I’m fine, just…pregnant, that’s all. I’m ten weeks along. It’s my third baby, you’d think the nausea would get the hint after a while.”
Every muscle in Cas relaxed for a moment, leaving him weak with relief. She was safe, then. The phage was an aggressive creature, one that took advantage of a host’s every weakness, but there was something protective about pregnancy for a woman, something in their immune system that made them a distasteful host. It was the same for children, actually—that was why you couldn’t train to take a phage until after puberty, because otherwise your body would just eat them.
“That’s happy news, congratulations.”
“Thank you!” She rubbed her belly speculatively as she glanced down at the baby boy who’d descended to her feet. He couldn’t be more than a year old. “Maybe I’ll get a girl this time. My new doctor believes in keeping things a surprise and won’t tell me unless I make him tell me, which I was going to, but then Amiru got wind of keeping it a surprise and thought that was a fantastic idea, so…” She shrugged.
“New doctor?” This was a good start. “When did you start seeing him? Why give up your old one?”
Tiyana looked a little puzzled. “Are you looking for a doctor, then?”
“I…might be. I’m seeing the military doctor now, but he doesn’t have the greatest bedside manner.”
“Oh, Beren. Are you sick?”
“No, not at all,” he assured her. “I just get extra tests and precautions since I’m from a different planet.”
“Ah.” He saw her shoulders relax, and she began to tell him all about her new doctor. Their conversation lasted through the snack, where he managed to turn the topic to cooking staff, and through taking the children outside into the garden to play, where they delved into the garden workers.
By the time they went back inside, Cas had several suspects for Christala in mind. They finally met back with Rone and Amiru—and Freyne, did that fucker never leave the premises—and from the look in Rone’s eyes, Cas could tell that he had gleaned his own fair share of information in the time they’d been apart.
This was the proper way of gathering intelligence—low-key, unsuspicious, productive. So why did it feel like an enormous hammer was hanging over Cas’s head, ready to fall and crush everything he held dear?