“Now, first of all, you’ll need to un-pin that brooch…”
“Why, your Highness,” Eleanora said in mock reproach, placing a hand protectively over the spot where the invisible peacock’s weight tugged at her lapel, “for shame! To think you would so quickly seek to rescind a gift to a lady. What would your mother say?”
“I rather think I’d be in a cell before she got down to that part,” the prince replied merrily. “Regardless, my lady, it wounds me that you would even suspect such a thing! No, I merely meant that the next leg of the journey calls for a different disguise. But of course, this being our first outing together, it should after all be the lady’s choice. If you wish to be seen in public with either your true face or the livery of one of your House’s servants, I’ll not gainsay you! I have, however, prepared something a bit more discreet, in case you think either of those might lead to awkward questions at home.”
“You have a prepared answer for everything, don’t you?” she asked dryly.
“Oh, hardly everything. But for most things, I daresay I do. You know what the secret is?”
He winked. “Not making the same mistake twice. You have years of youthful embarrassments and blunders to thank for the much wiser man before you today. I rather think you would not have enjoyed talking with me before that long, painful education.”
“I rather suspect you’re right,” she replied in a solemn tone. “Something tells me you’d have been one of those boys who never learned what I looked like above the collarbone.”
“Well, I’m afraid you’ve got me nailed, there. It’s much better that we didn’t meet until just recently.”
“And I’m to just take this on faith?” Eleanora covered the upper half of her face with a hand. “What color are my eyes?”
“Brown,” he said immediately. “A very deep brown, that in this light could be taken for black, but under bright fairy lamps shows the most intriguing depths of warmer color. Like garnets glinting from the bottom of a pool.”
She peeked at him from between her fingers, finding him wearing a knowing little smile. “…you’re dangerous, aren’t you?”
“Perhaps a tad,” he said with a roguish grin. “Anyway, we’ve veered off topic. Here, my lady. You’ll want to remove the brooch before trying it on; I’m not sure the effects of using both at once, but it’s generally a better idea not to mix enchantments.”
The ring he extended to her was a pretty but not extravagant piece, the perfect host for an enchantment which was meant to avoid notice. Hammered silver, set with a small, opaque red stone and with a simple engraving of curved lines around its band. He offered it on a flat palm, no doubt deliberately eschewing any of the romantic implications that might come from offering a lady a ring.
Eleanora plucked it carefully from his hand with her fingertips, prompting a faint widening of his smile which she ignored. She tucked the ring into her palm before carefully un-pinning the brooch, in the process reverting to her own face and the party dress she’d worn to the gala.
“You can leave it in the carriage for now,” Sharidan offered. “Unless you’re the only lady in Tiraas whose seamstress had the sense to give you pockets.”
“I’m afraid not, but I suspect if I tell her it was a recommendation from the crown prince, I can perhaps make some headway finally,” she said, placing the peacock on the seat next to her. “With all the Avenist activity in this city, one would think…”
She trailed off, having slipped the ring onto her finger and immediately lost all the pigmentation in her hands.
“Do you have a…” He was already offering her a hand mirror. “Of course you do. Thank you.”
Eleanora regarded her new face critically. She was now a pale Stalweiss—in fact, a blonde, with blue eyes, of all things. Still quite lovely, but…
“It doesn’t meet with your approval?” the prince asked almost diffidently. “My humblest apologies; many people find the use of magical disguise the perfect time to explore a little variety. I’m afraid I can’t get a new one on short notice, but for next time…”
“I suppose it would be craven not to try it once. Briefly. Hm… Are the Stalweiss really as savage as they say?”
“No more or less than anyone else, I expect. Any living in Tiraas are likely as cosmopolitan as any of their neighbors. The Stalwar Provinces are somewhat backward, but more because they weren’t treated well after the Enchanter Wars than because of any defect in the breed.”
“And whose fault was that?” she murmured.
“I understand they made a convenient scapegoat after Horsebutt’s rampage,” he said, his forehead tightening in the faintest shadow of a frown. “Hopefully, enough time has passed that we can begin correcting that. We’ll see. My mother has had more immediate priorities.”
“Hmm,” she said noncommittally. Either he actually cared for his people—even the infamous “barbarians” of the mountains—or could put up a good front. And why should he play that game with her? No one who had researched her would find any hint of interest in the plight of the mountain folk. Eleanora found herself warming toward him a bit, despite her better judgment.
She looked up to find him also wearing a new face—also a pale Stalweiss face, though he at least still had hair a proper shade of brown. Really, Eleanora fancied herself as open-minded as the next person, but it didn’t seem right for humans to have elven coloration.
“Oh, now this is fortuitous,” Sharidan commented, sliding over to the window and peering out. Eleanora joined him, noting somewhat belatedly the hubbub of a crowd outside; she’d developed a habit of tuning out exterior noise when riding in a carriage.
Their driver had to slow slightly to accommodate the traffic, which was itself somewhat impeded by the disruption. She couldn’t see much at this angle, but people with signs and placards seemed to be standing in front of a darkened building.
“Does the Writ of Duties allow people to impede traffic this way?” she asked, frowning and trying to get a closer look through the intervening vehicles.
“Actually it’s the rubbernecking drivers who are slowing down traffic,” Sharidan said merrily. “Those guys are very carefully within the law. See, they’re only on the sidewalk, and while that is a government office, it’s not open at this hour, so they’re not disrupting Imperial business. Look, there are soldiers watching; they’ll jump in the moment they have a reason. The Voters are very careful not to give them one.”
“Voters,” she murmured, finally making out one of the signs. Really, it would help them not to wave the things about, if they wished them to be read… “And you call this fortuitous? Those people want you dead.”
“Nonsense,” he said brightly, sliding back into his seat and smiling again. “They want my mother dethroned and the aristocracy abolished. Beyond that, it’s not personal. Only some of them want me dead. And they’ve as much chance of accomplishing any of that as the orcish revanchists have of launching so much as a dinghy from Sifan to invade us. It’s fortuitous because now we have an anecdote! Something to talk about at the party, aside from how our accents and mannerisms clearly don’t match our faces.”
“Yes, about that,” she said, resuming her own seat. “I note you’ve neglected to mention where you are taking me.”
“To a pleasant little late-evening gathering being held at the home of one Ms. Lorelei Talushaad, also known to her compatriots in the Thieves’ Guild as Gossamer.”
“Talushaad?” she repeated, suddenly intrigued. “The courtesan?” Her mother would have seen her dead before allowing her to visit such a person—which was only part of the reason she wanted to.
“The very same!”
“How…interesting,” she mused, allowing herself a slow smile. “All right, you have my attention. I doubt I’ve ever been to such a raucous party before.”
His grin widened. “Ah. Well, my lady, I’m afraid you may be disappointed.”
“It’s all about a happy medium, you see,” the disguised prince murmured to her as he escorted her through the entrance hall of the manor at which the carriage had discharged them. “If the party is too dull, well, there’s hardly any point in sneaking out to see it. Too rowdy, though, and the same is true. Excessive noise and debauchery makes it impossible to properly enjoy oneself. You want an event that falls somewhere in the middle, and Lorelei’s are always perfect. There’s good music, which you can actually hear. Good food, which will be eaten and not stomped into the carpets. Interesting people to talk to, and most will be sober enough to converse for at least a few more hours.”
“You make it sound downright pedestrian,” she murmured back, though she was looking around in fascination. Though the style of décor naturally differed, the house’s furnishings were of no lesser quality than those of the palatial residence House Turombi had occupied in Tiraas. Denser, and running more toward jewel and earthen tones than the light, spacious style her mother favored, but well-chosen and clearly expensive. The party itself was, indeed, more crowded and somewhat more noisy than the social events to which she was accustomed, but not to the extent that she felt uncomfortable. In fact, the prince had a point; it was all rather exciting. At the very least, they’d had no trouble getting in. It surprised her when the uniformed footman watching the door had allowed them inside with nothing more than a glance at the high quality of their clothing and the carriage which had brought them. Speaking of which… “And what, pray tell, are we to tell the lady of the house about ourselves?”
“Well, as to that,” he said with a wink, “I like to wing it, but unless you’re feeling adventurous, why don’t we save that until the next time? I rather doubt Lorelei will evict us, but there may be all manner of nuisance if we’re found out.”
“I think you may be a bad person, Sharidan.”
“On that point, Eleanora, I shall defer to your no doubt considerable expertise.” Despite his cool facade, he glanced around; they were hardly alone, but all the people nearby were engaged in their own conversations, none paying them any attention. The sound of a string quartet from the large room up ahead provided auditory camouflage, as well. There was no reaction to their names. “Give me just a moment to secure some provisions, if you would. Getting to the bar is always a struggle at these things; much faster with just one.”
“I shall defer to your considerable expertise on the subject of bars,” she said archly. The prince grinned at her and released her arm.
“Back in a flash.” Then he had slipped through the doors ahead—and the dense crowd within, about which he’d not exaggerated—leaving her alone.
She was standing in a sort of foyer, just inside the vestibule and clearly serving as a sort of indoor crossroads. A sweeping staircase curved up to the second floor, the wide door opened onto the main party area to her right, with a smaller door to a dining room (also heavily occupied) to the left and one into a shadowed hallways just ahead. Eleanora took note of the architecture. While a noble House would arrange its residence to impress upon the first entry, this one was clearly designed to provide space in which people could lose themselves from sight almost immediately. Which, she supposed, served the needs of a courtesan quite well.
Eleanora directed one long look at the door through which her escort had vanished, and then a small smile quirked the side of her mouth. The exact details of the Prince’s plan for her this evening she didn’t know, of course, but the general shape was obvious. Considering that, she saw no harm in making him do a little extra work. Not that it was going to pay off, which was sort of the point. It would be good for him; he likely had rarely had to cope with disappointment.
She turned and began ascending the staircase.
At the first landing, Eleanora paused, glancing down the second-floor hall, which was dimly lit and lined with doors on only one side, some of which were closed. A couple were walking away from her, arm-in-arm and heads together. After a moment’s hesitation, she decided to keep climbing and see if anything more immediately interesting presented itself.
And indeed, the next landing paid off. The stairs stopped here, but rather than a single corridor, it opened into a sort of balcony ringing the open main chamber below. Heavy pillars, low walls, and hanging curtains broke up the space into little alcoves offering privacy while also providing a clear view of the party going on—not unlike the ballroom at the Imperial Palace. Was this a common arrangement? It certainly was a suitable one for intrigues, which could explain its popularity in the capital.
She paced slowly down one side of the upper ring, carefully glancing into the alcoves she passed from the corner of her eye without staring rudely. Three people were sitting in conversation in the first, the second was empty, and a couple were locked in a passionate embrace in the third, prompting her to pick up her step slightly. The next alcove was also unoccupied, and Eleanora decided to take the opportunity to get a closer view of the ballroom below. Or was it properly a ballroom? If the bar was in there, it didn’t seem likely they were dancing in the space…
She stepped over to the rail and carefully leaned over the three-story drop. Indeed, this seemed more a staging area than a place where people congregated. There was a bar, and also long tables of food; as she watched, a set of doors opened and liveried servants bustled out with fresh trays. The musicians were there as well, ensconced in a raised area which seemed to occupy a turret jutting from the far corner of the room. There was no sign of the Prince—but then, from this vantage he’d have been nothing but a blob of brown hair, hardly distinctive.
Eleanora turned around, and gasped in surprise.
Lounging in the corner of the alcove, drink in hand, a woman was regarding her with a curious expression. She had seated herself so that her head was below the level of the decorative wall which separated off this little space, making her invisible from the outer ring.
“Oh, I am sorry!” Eleanora exclaimed. “I didn’t—”
“Now, no apologies,” the woman said, smiling. “You’re not who I was expecting, but it seems he’ll not be joining me. I gather I’m not who you expected, either?”
“I thought this space was empty,” Eleanora said. “I wasn’t expecting anyone, so…yes, that’s correct. I’ll just make myself scarce before your companion arrives.”
“Oh, don’t let me keep you if you’ve business elsewhere! But also, don’t hurry off on my account.” The woman’s eyes shifted, glancing over her quickly, and Eleanora suddenly took particular note of the fact that her new acquaintance was quite pretty. Not what she’d have considered her “type,” being rather lean of figure and face, with that sharp-featured aspect so common to the Tiraan, but still… “My husband thought he might make it, but…he would have by now, were he going to. Never the most reliable man. Are you here by yourself?”
“Why, no,” Eleanora said, allowing herself a smile. “At the moment, it would appear I’m here with you.”
She smiled back, warmly. “Then why don’t you join me? I’m Tashi.”
“…Nora,” she said after the barest hesitation, then stepped over to seat herself carefully on the couch next to Tashi.
“Nora, how exotic!” The woman straightened up, eyeing her with renewed interest. “Now, is that a traditional Stalweiss name?”
Oh, right, her face. Again, the urge for mischief rose in her, this time accompanied by something else. “I can honestly say it has been in my family for at least one generation,” she replied solemnly, then deliberately spoiled the image with a smile.
Tashi laughed obligingly. “I’ve not seen you at one of Lorelei’s events before. I am positive I would remember.” And something in her expression…
Oh, right, her face. A thrill of realization shivered though Eleanora. Flirtation had always been such a delicate, careful thing, bound by the need to dance around the utmost discretion. The sheer scandal that could erupt if she made the wrong move on the wrong person was, in her case, far worse than that which faced the average young aristocrat—at least, back home. Tiraas did have a much stronger Avenist and Izarite influence, but she’d not had time to experiment. That, too, would have to be done slowly, and with exceeding caution.
Unless, of course, she were in a place where the Lady Eleanora Turombi would never go, wearing the face of someone who did not exist. A place where, perhaps, she could follow up on such little hints as she was getting now without making a five-month courtship of it.
“You could say I’m stretching my wings,” she said, carefully scooting closer to Tashi and leaning subtly toward her. “This is, indeed, my first visit. In fact, I’ve not properly explored the house yet. I found something very much more interesting right away, you see…”
“Why, it sounds as if I’m depriving you, then,” Tashi murmured deep in her throat. “I should offer you a drink for the inconvenience, at the very least. Alas…” Moving carefully so that she did not draw further from Eleanora in the process, she reached to pick up the wine bottle perched on a low table before the couch, and topped off her glass. “I’ve only the one glass.”
“Well.” She moved carefully, slow enough to give her companion opportunity to object or move away if she wished. But while Eleanora carefully took Tashi’s hand in her own and shifted the glass toward herself, the other woman simply regarded her with a knowing little smirk. “I don’t mind, if you don’t.”
Holding eye contact, she very deliberately took a sip, placing her lips right on the dampened spot from which the glass had already been drunk. Tashi’s smile widened slightly. The thrill racing through her was only somewhat to do with lust; this was just so easy. Oh, the fun she had missed out on for all these years, having to be so damn careful. She had barely even believed people actually did this, but…here they were.
“If I may ask,” Eleanora murmured, now that her head was close enough to make a lower tone appropriate, “if you were expecting your husband, why only one glass?”
It had been a tacit offer of withdrawal, but Tashi declined to take advantage of the reminder.
“He said he might come,” she replied, her head tilting and gradually drifting closer. “That is not the same as me expecting him.”
“Well, that is a shame,” Eleanora said softly, leaning further. “He’s missing a fine vintage.”
“Why, Nora,” Tashi all but whispered, smiling with pure mischief, “it’s only a common bottle, after all. Did you even taste it?”
“I wasn’t talking about the wine.”
It tasted better from Tashi’s lips, anyway.
Somehow, in the intervening moments, Tashi shifted to set the glass down on the table, and then to angle her body toward Eleanora’s, reaching up to cradle her cheeks in both hands. Eleanora, for her part, moved somewhat more aggressively, heady with the power and freedom of being able to do this. She slipped on arm around Tashi’s waist, prompting a soft squeak when she tugged her firmly closer—but not a squeak of protest, to judge by the ensuing giggle and the hand that moved to tangle in her hair.
Then she stopped thinking for a few minutes, lost in softness and quiet laughter and gently insistent exploration, until she finally came up for air and found herself staring into another pair of eyes.
It took her a moment for the fog to recede, but then it was replaced by dawning horror as she recognized the disguise currently worn by Prince Sharidan.
“Oh, my humble apologies,” he said mildly, blinking in bemusement. He had a glass of effervescent wine in each hand. “This spot looked empty from…”
No no no no—
Eleanora lunged up, ignoring the startled protest of her new companion and pushing rudely past the prince, incidentally spilling one of the glasses. In pure panic, she tore down the hall.
No no no, how could she have been so reckless? He could ruin her worse than if he’d bedded her. If her mother found out about this…
She redoubled her speed, dodging around people who exclaimed in irritation at her passage, ignoring them. The balcony ring ended in a little seating area from which hallways branched off; she picked one at random and raced down it.
Almost immediately, it dead-ended, and Eleanora hissed in frustration. There were three doors; she yanked open the narrowest one and darted through.
“Will you wait a moment?!”
Gods, was he still after her? This was some kind of servants’ passage, obviously, to judge by its narrowness and the unpainted plank walls. Behind her, the door opened again, and footsteps pounded into the corridor. The boy just wouldn’t take a hint.
The passage turned sharply left, and partway down this length, she found an open door through which cool air flowed.
Ignoring him, she dashed through, and immediately tried to skid to a halt. It had rained, though, and the narrow strip of flat roof was slick. Wheeling her arms frantically, she fought for balance, teetering on the edge of a three-story fall overlooking an alley behind the house.
Then a hand grabbed her hair, yanking her backward. She squawked in pain, but in the next moment he was holding her by the shoulders. They both stood there, panting.
“My hair?” she asked weakly, managing a tiny spark of outrage.
“Well, I’m sorry,” the prince snapped, in the first open annoyance she’d heard from him. “We are still learning one another’s preferences, after all. Next time would you prefer I let you fall to your death?”
She allowed herself a few more calming breaths.
“You’re welcome. Here.” Sharidan carefully released her and slipped past. “This is not the first time I’ve brought company out to this little spot, though previously the circumstances were more…cordial.”
“Omnu’s breath, how often do you come to this place?” she asked, even as she followed him along the side of the house. Just a few feet to the left of the doorway was a small bench. “And…what is the point of this? Architecturally, it doesn’t make a shred of sense.”
“Of course it does,” he said lightly, seating himself and then patting the bench. “This house belongs to a member of the Thieves’ Guild. This is a convenient roof access. I was once rather embarrassingly interrupted here with a young lady by another young lady who carried a lot of knives, and let me tell you, that did not turn out the way I fantasized as a boy. Sit down, catch your breath.”
“Your…fantasies…generally involve knives?” She found herself sinking down onto the bench. Her legs seemed to want to give out, anyway, so…might as well.
“On the contrary,” he said wryly. “That’s when I knew the night wasn’t going to go my way.”
Eleanora made no reply to that. In fact, now that she had a moment to breathe, she found it unbearable to meet his gaze. Propping her elbows on her knees, she lowered her face into her hands.
“So,” Sharidan said after a short pause, “I gather this evening was never going to turn out the way I had in mind, either.”
“And what makes you say that,” she mumbled. It wasn’t really a question.
To her annoyance, he actually laughed softly. “It’s not so uncommon, a lady with a soft spot for other ladies. Your friend back there? Antashi Shivaan picks up a new girl at every party. To share with her husband when he can come, but to bring him an exciting story when he can’t. You’ll be pleased to know you weren’t breaking up a marriage. You, though…that was panic I saw, the kind that gets people killed. As you discovered. I can’t help concluding,” he added in a gentler tone, “this is rather a secret I inadvertently uncovered. So would I be wrong in guessing this is more an…inflexible preference?”
Eleanora heaved a deep sigh, but lowered her hands. “I’m sorry.”
Sharidan was watching her with a calmly open expression, but now he actually smiled. “And you were going to let me chase you fruitlessly all night? You absolute minx.”
For some damned reason, she couldn’t help grinning back. “Oh, poor baby. Something tells me you’d have survived.”
“Well, I always have before!” His grin abated slightly. “Forgive me if I’m prying, but… Is this about House Turombi’s succession? I know you’re the only child…”
“That, partially,” she said with a deep sigh. “But apart from that… Onkawa is not Tiraas. We have all the Pantheon cults, of course, but it’s Omnist territory, with a Vidian and Shaathist influence. Women loving women isn’t disallowed, but it’s…it’s not…favorable. Never mind,” she added, shaking her head. “It’s more complex than that, and it would take me far too long to explain.”
“It’s a hell of a thing, though,” he said quietly. “So many people grow up dreaming of one day finding true love. Not us. Nobles who have such ideas end up being cautionary tales. We marry for a purpose, and that’s all there is to it.”
“You don’t sound bitter,” she said softly.
He shrugged. “I’ve had time to get used to it, as have you. And clearly, I have less reason to be bitter in the first place.”
“You’re also much better at finding your own fun than I ever was,” she replied sardonically. “I’ll freely admit I’d never have dared to do something like this.”
“Well, that’s a shame! I bet you’d have pulled it off quite well. So long as you learned to suppress that panic reflex.”
“Yes, yes, laugh it up. I should thank you for the lesson, anyway. Maybe I’ll be able to sneak away now and again to experience a little of life. Gods know you will be.”
“No.” At his tone, she looked up again, finding him staring at the sky with a strangely sad expression. “I’m twenty-two, Eleanora; how much longer do you think I’ll be able to get away with acting like a teenager?”
“Was that a rhetorical question? I can try to estimate, if you’d like.”
He didn’t smile, this time. “I’m not that guy. The dissolute wastrel who throws away his country’s wealth and credibility on pleasure and nonsense. I… Tiraas means something. It’s a legacy of a thousand years; it’s the lives of millions of people. I needed something for myself, but… I’ve never felt entitled to keep doing this forever. Someday I’m going to have to stop, settle down, grow up, and serve. Someday quite soon.” He looked over at her again, and managed another little smile. “Maybe sooner than I imagined… I’ve had close calls of my own.”
“We have to grow up eventually,” she practically whispered. He nodded.
The silence was strangely comfortable.
“So, what are you missing out on?” he asked finally, with a lightness that she appreciated all the more for how forced it clearly was. “Not one of those who harbored dreams of true love, I hope? I mean, there’s a precedent, at least in this part of the world. More than one noblewoman in Calderaas has married another noblewoman. A few princesses, even.”
“Oh, honestly,” she muttered. “My parents stay together because of politics and habit. They were never in love; I don’t think they were truly fond of each other till I was a teenager. True romance…it’s just not something I longed for. It was something for storybooks, not life.”
“Well, I guess that’s not so bad, then.”
She hesitated, then let out an exasperated sigh. “I—I just…” Eleanora pressed her hands against her temples. “By the gods, I do feel deprived. Every time I pass a really excellent pair of tits and don’t get to bury my face in them, I feel I’ve lost a piece of myself I will never get back!”
The prince stared at her in open shock.
And then he burst out laughing.
“I’m glad you’re amused,” she said wryly after a minute of this. Sharidan, gasping for breath, actually slumped over against the wall next to him. “All right, settle down,” Eleanora said in mounting alarm. “If you fall off the roof your mother will have me beheaded.”
“Right…there…with you,” he wheezed, still holding his ribs. “I’m sorry, I just…” Chuckling, he grinned widely at her. “You’ll think this is crazy, but of all the women I’ve found myself in secluded corners or balconies with… I think you’re the first one I truly get.”
“I’m still not sleeping with you,” she informed him, unable to keep the grin off her own face now.
“Well, I mean, sure. At this point, I honestly think that would ruin it.”
His laughter had subsided enough, and the noise of the city was distant enough, that they could clearly hear a series of sharp clicks.
Eleanora straightened up. “What was that?”
Sharidan, by contrast, slumped in his seat, laughter suddenly gone. “Oh, for…ugh. Hello, Quentin.”
“Good evening, your Majesty.” A man stepped around the corner onto their little stretch of roof—an almost painfully nondescript man in a suit who wouldn’t have looked out of place behind the counter of a bank, and yet also appeared quite comfortable on a damp rooftop in the middle of the night. As he came into view, he turned the knob of his silver pocketwatch a few more times, making it click again, and tucked it into his pocket. “Ready to go home?”
“Eleanora, this is Quentin,” Sharidan said sourly, waving a hand at the man with poor grace. “Who I am surprised to find here, slumming around the city in person. Last I heard, he was up for promotion to the city bureau chief at Imperial Intelligence.”
“Yes, and I thank you for the ringing recommendation, your Highness,” Quentin said mildly. “Of course, since I am the only local agent who’s been able to keep up with your little excursions, and your Highness’s ulterior motive was quite obvious, it wasn’t seriously considered. And if I may say, it was altogether a lesser caliber of chicanery than we at Intelligence are accustomed to expecting from your Highness. Is your Highness feeling well?”
“Yeah, well, they can’t all be gems,” Sharidan said irritably. “And quit calling me that. Honestly, Quentin, how long have we known each other? After all, you’ve been to almost every party I’ve crashed. At some point you ought to just start calling me by my first time.”
“Yes, your Highness, I’ll get right on that. You may wish to brace yourself, young lady.”
The air shimmered with a blue haze and a faint whine sounded in the edges of her vision, and then the whole world vanished.
The bench went with it; she and Sharidan were both sent sprawling to the floor, though the prince at least caught himself—due to experience, she suspected. He immediately bounded to his feet and gallantly offered her a hand up.
They were in a small outdoor courtyard, with a gate on one side and a door into a stone building on the other.
“First time being teleported?” Sharidan asked.
“Yes,” she admitted, brushing off her dress. “I was expecting something less…annoying.”
He grinned and opened his mouth to reply, but Quentin cleared his throat. Looking over at him, Eleanora realized there were two Azure Corps battlemages standing at attention in the background, doubtless the reason for their sudden change of scenery.
“If you will please follow these gentlemen, your Highness, we shall have you home as quickly and quietly as possible.”
“Yes, yes,” Sharidan said with a sigh, then turned to Eleanora and smiled. “Well! This evening did not go like I had planned, but oddly enough, I can’t recall having enjoyed myself more. What say we try for something a little less boisterous on our next outing?”
She raised an eyebrow, and folded her arms. “We will not be doing this again, Sharidan.”
The prince gazed at her with that knowing little smile for a long moment, and then winked. “Yes, we will.”
With no more ado, he turned and strolled toward the wall. One of the battlemages moved to open the door for him, and then both followed him through and shut it behind.
Eleanora stared at this momentarily before turning to Quentin. “Is it treasonous to slap the Crown Prince?”
“If so,” he said dryly, “it’s treason Intelligence has no interest in prosecuting. We have much bigger and less numerous fish to fry. Now, let’s get you home, my lady.”
“Right,” she said with a heavy sigh. “Time to face the music.”
“I can’t say whether you’ve been missed,” he said. “If so, this will become difficult; we’ll find out upon reaching your home. If not, I can insert you carefully and your family will be none the wiser.”
Eleanora had taken one trudging step toward the gate, but now paused, turning to him in surprise. “I thought… I mean, why would you want to protect…me?”
“Intelligence is in the business of gathering information,” Quentin replied, “and I won’t pretend the Empress has no interest in politically inconveniencing your father, in particular. With regard to the Prince’s little…adventures…however, there is a policy in place. Making them public would embarrass the Throne, not to mention exposing his Highness to danger, as he lacks the sense to refrain from them. It is altogether easier to silence the whole matter as much as possible. This is why we prefer it when he chooses compatriots who have their own secrets to protect. Things can become unpleasant if I have to be…persuasive.”
“Say no more,” she muttered. “Although… I am sorry to put you out so. This must be a serious inconvenience, and you surely have more important things to do.”
This time it was Quentin who paused in the act of turning to go; he regarded her almost quizzically. “Hm. You know, of all the young women the prince has gallivanted about with, you are the first to offer me an apology.”
“Then his Highness has rather poor taste in women,” she said archly, “which does my ego no favors. Surely you could do something to lean on him? This must be a drain on your resources.”
“Well.” The spy actually smiled at her. “It’s all for a good cause. A prince who can outmaneuver his security detail will become an Emperor who can outwit all the enemies who will be constantly braying at his heels. And if he makes us work a little harder in the meantime…what are we here for, after all?”
“For the Empire,” she murmured, already deep in thought.