Sorrel didn’t see Arianlach until the evening of the next day, not long before the supper bell rang. He’d gone to the mead hall for lack of anything better to do, once he’d written a letter to Bai. He’d considered writing one to his parents too, but decided they could wait until New Milk to hear from him. Virishnu wouldn’t even arrive back home for another week. Soon, the snows would set in and if any letters were going anywhere, they’d go via the Tethiri trade route on the other side of the hills and take three times as long, and it would be nearly Spring before they got there. If they got there. Tethiri post-riders were among the fastest in the Northern lands but they were also the most unreliable. Letters would get there if the rider remembered he carried them. Sometimes, he didn’t, and when he discovered them in his packs, would dump them at the nearest trading post, much to the exasperation and annoyance of the sheriff, who never knew what he was supposed to do with them.
The strident notes of a hurdy-gurdy and lap-pipes echoed around the rafters of the mead hall, and the lamps must have been cleaned, because the atmosphere seemed less smoky and gloomy than it had the night before. Sorrel seated himself at the high table, alone; not even Henarian was there. Three places had been laid, however. Sorrel assumed one was his. He poured himself a cup of wine and fidgeted with a crisp white roll, conscious of eyes on him from below the salt. Commoners they might have been, but they weren't shy of staring at the young man sitting alone and nervous at the table above them. He began to consider blinding them all with a Rune, but thought better of it, since that wouldn't endear him to anyone.
Arianlach's old hunting dog slunk under the table and snuffled at Sorrel's ankles, before sitting across his boots and sneezing at the dust on them, and then going promptly to sleep. He smiled and leaned down to scratch the droopy, flea-bitten ears, earning a snort of appreciation from the old girl.
Arianlach appeared from the shadows and sank into his seat next to Sorrel at the high table. His eyes were hooded and bleary with sleep. He was better dressed, however, in black velvet embroidered in silver, a design of leaves and dragonscales on his sleeves. His collar was stiff with silver thread, and silver scales, beaten to an impossible-looking fragile thinness, adorned the breast of his coat. His hair had been combed loose, but had tangled once more, and fell over his shoulders in soft, pale waves that Sorrel’s fingers itched to sweep out of the way.
Arianlach bestowed a wan smile on Sorrel and reached for the wine-jug and a cup. ‘My apologies, Prince Ellazhán, for leaving you for the best part of a day without my company, though I’m sure you’ve managed to amuse yourself.’
‘I inspected your stables,’ said Sorrel, smiling back. He straightened and dipped his fingers in the rosemary-scented finger-bowl, wiping them dry on a napkin. He proffered the bread basket to Arianlach, who waved it away. 'I scolded your groom and his boys, and rode Glasoura out to the Tethiri camp. They seem to hold you in high regard.’
‘Well, I am like kin to them, being half Lyr Blaed.’ Arianlach grimaced and threw his first cup of wine down his throat. He grimaced again, licked his lips, and poured another. ‘Speaking of kin, have you seen Henarian?’
‘Not a glimpse.’ Sorrel had taken pains to avoid Henarian, still unable to decide if he liked the lad or not. Henarian seemed to feel the same way. There was a friction between them that Sorrel assumed was because he, a foreign-born Tethiri, was marrying Henarian’s sister.
A thought occurred to him. ‘Has no bride been picked for Henarian?’
‘Hervik men pick their own brides. I think they're not supposed to, but they do. At least, we think Kaithenal did, and Kerren certainly did.'
‘But Henarian's sixteen? And the eldest Hervik son who still lives? Should he not…’
‘Why did you scold my groom?’
Sorrel took the wine jug away before Arianlach could pour a fourth cup. ‘His standards of cleanliness are somewhat lacking. No, Earl Cangarth, give me that cup - I won’t let you drink yourself under the table!’
‘Who are you to tell me what I can’t do in my own mead hall?’ Arianlach made to snatch the jug back, and almost fell across Sorrel as Sorrel jerked it out of the way.
He sat up and cleared his throat, slanting a look at Sorrel. ‘Ale, then, Prince Ellazhán. At least let me have that.’
'I can't work out if you're determined to kill yourself, or survive to take the throne.'
'I want the throne, Prince Ellazhán.'
Sorrel sat back and folded his arms, watching the musicians further down the hall. A group of men had come in, outlandish in their furs and leather. Two were Tethiri and looked to be fresh from the road.
‘They’ll be arriving en-masse soon,’ said Arianlach. ‘Blazes! I need to see my steward. Time has crept up on me. My apologies once more, Prince Ellazhán: I must leave you again.’
‘Why is it necessary that I stay here while you attend your business? I’m your foster-brother. Allow me some insight into your duties, your life here…’
‘Thought you were busy overhauling my stables?’ Arianlach froze mid-rise, his hands on the table. Sorrel couldn’t help but notice how sharp the Earl’s fingernails were. Short, but pointed, and a little glassy.
Arianlach’s eyes slid up to his. ‘Why do you stare at me like that?’
Sorrel swallowed, and forced himself to look Arianlach steadily in the eye. ‘I am not staring, Earl Cangarth.’
‘Well, come with me, and tell me what I should order for your Tethiri kin when they get here. Are any your kin? Tell me of your family…’
He kept up a steady chatter as they left the hall, and led Sorrel round to the Keep. He took the steps outside two at a time, nodding to the sentries, and then beckoned Sorrel into what looked to be an office. A woman was already there, with Henarian and his tabby kitten, both completely absorbed in a game which seemed to involve Henarian goading the creature with a length of bright silk ribbon, at the end of which two pheasant feathers were tied.
‘Out!’ Arianlach snapped at him. ‘Think I want you reporting back to your hell-bound father about my affairs?’
Henarian grumbled, scooped his kitten up and left, with a reproachful glare at Sorrel.
The woman rose and bowed. ‘Lord Cangarth, Lord Sorreilli.’
‘This is Khian, my steward,’ said Arianlach to Sorrel. ‘My steward.’
Sorrel hesitated, then gave a Tethiri bow.
The steward returned his bow in the Northern style.
Sorrel sat and listened to the Earl discuss the arrangements for the coming Midwinter Dark festivities, and tried to imagine what it would be like to attend the festival as a member of Silverheim’s nobility, and not his own.
And he wondered if Bai would be there.
Of course he will. He always is. He’ll be here any day.
‘My cousin Bai,’ he heard himself saying, and snapped all of his attention to the matter at hand. ‘He brings eight hundred tribesfolk with him each year. Haven’t you done this before?’
‘No,’ said Arianlach. ‘My mother did it. And my father, before…he died.’
Sorrel nodded. ‘You’ve refused her help, haven’t you?’
‘It would make me look weak.’
Sorrel thought it would make Arianlach look even weaker if he messed it up, but kept that thought to himself. Instead, he did what he could to help put together the tasks that would need to be completed before the first Tethiri caravans began to arrive, and then, stifling yawns, begged to be excused, and went to his bed, leaving Arianlach still bright as a button with his steward, who also looked like she was flagging.