Of Blood And Light Bonus Scenes by Camilla Monk
THE FUTURE IS NOW.

Millions

“No. Hold it like this and let me . . . We need another screw here.”

Lulled by the pleasant effluxes of tobacco and the lingering effects of one particularly fine bottle of derkos brandy, Hadrian watched with circumspection as Fāris wrestled together the legs of a flimsy birch chair, helped in this audacious venture by none other than King Mordred.

Joined by Natameus, the four of them had repaired to Hadrian’s smoking room for a gentlemen’s meeting, which, according to Fāris, would usher in a new industrial era across Thule, no less.

The seat snapped in place under the vigorous pummeling of both men. A splinter of wood landed on Hadrian’s rug, inches away from the open pages of an assembly guide whose hideous pictograms had been of little help to the two self-appointed woodworkers. He considered the finished product from behind the rim of his snifter. There was little to be said about the simplistic assortment of straight pieces of wood, save perhaps for the fact that it would make for suitable kindling.

Natameus took cautious steps toward the chair, testing its sturdiness by the application of his index finger to the back rest. The legs immediately canted in the most alarming manner. His friend jerked his hand away as if the contraption were cursed. That thing, Hadrian knew, would never be able to withstand a grown man’s weight—or even that of a capybara.

“What do you think?” Fāris inquired, extending a hand to the evening’s primary source of entertainment.

“It does look quite fashionable,” Natameus conceded. “A bold design.”

Mordred, who was known to be overly partial to imported goods, nodded his assent.

Feeling compelled by Fāris’s intense scrutiny to voice an opinion, Hadrian considered the chair for some time before electing to speak the truth of his mind. “I do understand the aesthetic appeal, or even the novelty of it. However . . .” Fāris’s nostrils flared. Hadrian nonetheless soldiered on. “Who could possibly want to purchase unassembled pieces of furniture when a perfectly good chair may be procured at a reasonable price anywhere in Camelot?”

There was a spark of amber in Fāris’s eyes as he spoke, a fire Hadrian had last seen some twenty years ago, when Thulair’s first prototype windcruiser had taken off the ground. “Millions, my friend. Millions.

A mallard attacking you!

Of David and Goliath

“How do you feel?” It’s the first thing I ask Hadrian when my voice returns to me. The light around us is fading, dripping from the ichor-encrusted walls of the cave—the entrance to the path connecting Camelot to Brocéliande, or “the Crêpe Highway,” as pathfinders call it when no superior is within earshot.

Under our feet, the lergēdurā barring access to the path has returned to its natural state: a smooth stone plate engraved in Thulish. Since my first trip through that same path, I’ve learned that these mysterious characters are quite simply the logo and motto of the Pathfinder Office: “Serving the kingdom, wherever the light goes.” 

Hadrian considers his hands, his brow furrowing in wonder as he flexes his fingers experimentally. He’s just made the 290-light-year trip from Thule to Earth for the first time in his life. “Still whole . . . I suppose. How about you, Koimabonā? Are you well?”

I grin and give a little shrug. Not counting my first involuntary trip to Thule, I’ve crossed three times already to visit my father and Floe since moving to Thunor Hall with Sage. “All good, save for pins and needles in my legs, but you’re probably having those too. They’ll go away in a few minutes, and so will that metallic taste in your mouth; you get used to it after a while. How’s Juvenal?”

Hadrian spins around to check on his sidekick, who awaits in the arms of a young dark-skinned pathfinder. That would be Katwal: he’s posted here in Brocéliande most of the time, part of a ubiquitous task force charged with protecting—stalking—our family twenty-four seven. 

Juvenal wiggles in Katwal’s arms, demanding his release. Hadrian reaches out to take him instead and pets him, reading the wan tendrils of ichor stretching from the plump capybara’s fur to his fingertips. “He’s well, albeit understandably shaken.” Hadrian glances at the lergēdurā with suspicion, then at Katwal’s boss, High Constable Iwogenus—Iwo to friends. Not that this hard-boiled Josh Brolin double has any that I’m aware of. “Your brochure’s claim that capybaras not only survive but enjoy crossing is perhaps somewhat exaggerated.”

Iwo readjusts his bowler hat stoically. “’Twas Director Wolk who vetted the brochure, Your Grace. I’m only doing my job.”

I fight an eye roll. Iwo’s favorite line of defense is that of being a helpless pawn in the hands of unseen forces—which he kind of is, but still . . . I distinctly heard him tell Hadrian that Juvenal would have a “fine and jaunty time” when the lergēdurā started dissolving to let us through, even as our boy was frantically trying to scratch Katwal’s face off.

Hadrian tightens his hold on his capybara, who sighs in his arms. I’m guessing he intends to handle Juvenal himself on the way back to Thule. His Grace towers over Iwo, Katwal, and their two accomplices, who’ve carefully kept to themselves during the exchange. “Very well. I shall speak to Director Wolk about correcting any factual inaccuracies in the documentation provided to prospective travelers. Do lead the way, gentlemen.”

I join Hadrian’s side with a secret smile as we make our way up a flight of stone stairs and out of the cave. He’s nervous. He’ll die before admitting it, but the way he keeps scratching Juvenal’s neck doesn’t lie. 

Today I’m wearing a light sweater over worn leggings, and His Grace is out in public without a cravat because his valet and I spent over an hour arguing over the most suitable attire for the occasion, and I won. Leil, who’s never left Thule and prides himself in being the ultimate gentleman’s gentleman, steamed every last wrinkle out of His Grace’s best silk court coat and firmly intended to match it with a glittering gleist-embroidered waistcoat. I staged an intervention when he whipped out an assortment of jeweled cuff links and a jar of hair powder. I had to explain to Leil with as much tact as possible that my dad was, in fact, a craggy biker with a chest-long beard. Clearly, I didn’t frame this right because Leil’s first reaction was to tilt his head in uncertainty and let out a strangled, “But surely, my lady, he isn’t a vagrant, is he?”

Having reassured Thunor Hall’s arbiter of elegance that Dad did not live under a bridge, I eventually managed to convey that too much bling would make my father uncomfortable and might even paint Hadrian in a negative light. With an expression of physical pain, Leil set His Grace’s voluminous silk cravat aside and asked whether we should consider “a simple riding coat.”

And so we’re treading—and for one of us, now trotting—through the forest of Brocéliande, among centenary oaks and beeches whose leaves rustle softly in welcome, and Hadrian is going to meet my father for the first time.

“It’s gonna be fine,” I murmur, squeezing Hadrian’s hand briefly as a long half-timbered cottage comes into sight. 

According to Eliud—who goes by Director Wolk these days—our family’s temporary nest dates back to the end of the fifteenth century. While its interior has been frequently renovated and upgraded by the Pathfinder Office, most of its tarred timber has withstood the test of time, blanketed by lush climbing roses.

A few French SUVs are parked in the courtyard: there are never less than a dozen pathfinders guarding the cottage Dad shares with Floe, my sister. Conspicuously missing, however, is Eliud’s old sports car, a relic from the seventies; he has apparently driven Floe to the beach in Saint-Malo, an hour away from here. I already knew she wouldn’t be present when I wrote to tell her that Hadrian and I were visiting today. While Floe’s short-lived marriage to him has been properly annulled and there’s no bad blood between them, it’s going to take a little time for her to feel comfortable in his presence after everything she’s been through.

The cottage door opens and my dad steps out, glaring at us in his Frisco Hells Angels apron, which under a prominent “81” features the words “51% motherfucker, 49% son of a bitch.”

Birds stop chirping. Juvenal flutters lazy eyes at Dad. Hadrian clears his throat as Iwo and Katwal discreetly step aside, abandoning him to his fate.

“He’s overdoing it . . .” I whisper to Hadrian, trying to ease the mood with a laid-back grin. “Come. Let’s get this over with.”

Dad’s eyes turn to slits as Hadrian approaches. He clutches the wooden spatula in his hand as he would a tonfa. “How old did you say he was?” he grits out in the guise of a welcome.

I didn’t say. Because at nearly fifty, Hadrian is barely younger than my dad. The difference between them is that being an ichorite with a life expectancy of some three hundred years, Hadrian is technically still considered a young man on Thule. But I worry that his gray hair, streaked with white at the temples, only adds to my dad’s confusion and mistrust.

“Hadrian Landevale of Caid. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir. I shall be nine and forty years in Kentlugger,” Hadrian announces before I can stop him.

Dad’s nostrils flare. His gaze cuts to me. “How much is that in human years?”

“Well, it depends . . . do you mean in actual Earth years or maybe, like a comparable figure?” I hedge with a car dealer grin. We’re still standing on the threshold; he hasn’t even invited us in yet. I lied to Hadrian—this is going to be a disaster. “It smells amazing in here. What are you cooking?” I chirp, trying to redirect Dad’s attention.

“Enchiladas.” The words rent the air between us like an executioner’s axe.

Juvenal’s nostrils quiver as he catches tantalizing whiffs of melted cheese and Mexican seasoning. Dad looks down from Hadrian’s falsely serene expression to the capybara in his arms. He tilts his head in curiosity, clearly taken despite himself by Juvenal’s bodhisattvic presence. Dad loves animals; there may be hope yet.

A few more excruciating seconds tick by before Dad mutters, “You hungry, huh, little guy? Got carrots in the fridge for you.” Then he motions for us to come in.

Well, at least he’s talking to Juvenal.

It’s been only a few weeks since I last stood in this living room, but today it feels like a place I left behind a lifetime ago, quiet and steeped in hazy light and the glitter of a few dust motes. I watch Hadrian take in the sprawling space’s mismatched furniture: a blend of the cottage’s antique pieces and our collection of upcycled Goodwill finds. Photo frames and stacks of paper cover the length of the old sideboard Sage and I painted blue years ago. The imposing grandfather clock standing next to it belongs to the cottage. The untrained eye might see nothing more than a possibly valuable antique, but Hadrian will undoubtedly recognize Thule’s solar system engraved on the door.

As I try to pinpoint the source of the strange melancholy weighing on my limbs, it dawns on me that this silence, this sense of living in a memory, is how Dad must feel. With Sage and I gone, there’s only Floe here with him . . . Floe, who doesn’t speak much and will eventually leave him too. There’s a whole world out there waiting for her, a long life left to live. She’s even started taking driving lessons with Eliud.  

“Make yourself at home,” Dad grumbles, flinging his hand at the long dining table and X-frame armchairs that take up nearly a third of the room—typical of the early Utherian style you’ll find in countless houses on Thule.

Three plates await on the table. Two have been set at one end, some twelve feet away from a lone third at the other end. I shake my head at Dad as I bring the third plate closer to the other two. “Seriously . . . You’re not Vladimir Putin.”

He huffs and heads to the kitchen without a word, soon followed by Juvenal, who jumps from Hadrian’s arms.

Hadrian’s stance relaxes as soon as my father is gone. He indulges in a sigh. “I’m afraid I am not quite the future son-in-law he hoped for.”

“He probably hoped for no son-in-law,” I admit.

Once seated, we survey the doorway in awkward silence for several minutes, discreetly holding each other’s hand under the table until Dad marches back into the living room with Juvenal on his heels and a steaming casserole in his hands. Wow. Apparently the Frisco club does oven mitts too.

Juvenal considers us with a heavy sigh before trotting away to jump onto the sofa cushions and lie there. I bet Dad fed him in the kitchen, as he’s already slipping into a food coma.

The anxious thread of ichor tethering me to Hadrian snaps as he sits straighter, ready to be tried. “Thank you for your hospitality, sir. What a spectacular dish,” he praises as Dad drops a steaming enchilada onto his plate with a glare. Tomato sauce splatters the white porcelain ominously.

“They’re Dad’s secret recipe,” I proudly inform Hadrian, who considers his plate with pursed lips; it’s the first actual meal he’s ever had on Earth. I’m reminded of the strange lunch we shared on Thule the day I was abducted there by Eliud and his goons. I remember staring at my plate and having no idea what I was looking at or how it would taste; this must be how Hadrian feels as he gingerly pokes the enchilada with his fork. There are no red tomatoes on Thule, only yellow and purple varieties that taste a little different from ours.

“Had to improvise,” Dad clips, sitting down in his turn. “Nearest grocery where you can find tortillas is ten miles away, so I make them with crêpes. Can’t find any asadero or queso fresco either around here; I use feta and gruyère instead.”

“Fascinating.” Hadrian nods along with Dad’s explanation. He’s probably never heard of either cheese, but that doesn’t stop him from bringing a bite to his mouth. He’s a man on a mission who’ll eat alien enchiladas if he must.

I watch him from the corner of my eye as he thoughtfully chews on Dad’s culinary creation before rewarding his host with a tentative smile. “Remarkable. A farandole of flavors.”

Dad shakes his head at me without a word, his judgment louder than any sound he could produce. Where did you find this clown? Did you choose him solely to hurt me? Six hundred million bikers on Earth and you had to go to space to bring back this guy?

The next few minutes are marred only by the soft clink of cutlery as we begin our meal. You could cut the tension around the table with a machete.

Dad slices angrily through his second enchilada without looking up from his plate. “So you used to be married to one of my daughters.”

Hadrian’s fork scratches porcelain with a sound that raises goose bumps on my nape. I explicitly warned Dad not to go there. Dad knows what happened between the three of us: that Floe entered an arranged marriage with Hadrian a year ago, during which nothing happened save for mutual grief at a situation beyond their control. Then Floe disappeared, abducted by our uncle for knowing too much about his plans to allow an old god to ravage Thule. The day was, however, saved. Gaheris—the uncle I knew for only a few days but even that was too long—kicked the proverbial bucket, and Floe was reunited with Dad after seventeen years of absence. All thanks to Hadrian, who risked everything, including his life, to rescue Floe.

Once the dust had settled, Hadrian granted Floe an annulment, as he had meant to do from the start of their union. His decision had nothing to do with the fact that I had entered the picture in the meantime: he knew she couldn’t be happy with him and would have set her free regardless.

My point is that Hadrian is without reproach in this mess. Dad knows it, and I did well to bring his plate closer to mine: he’s now within kicking distance. My father grunts as I vigorously apply the toe of my sneaker to his shin. Our eyes meet, and I hope he can read the fury in mine.

“And now you’re dating my River,” Dad insists, glowering at Hadrian over his third enchilada.

Uncertainty flickers in His Grace’s eyes, followed by shock: he doesn’t understand what my dad means by “dating” and probably inferred the crassest of insults. His mouth sets in a thin line. “Whilst my behavior has, to my greatest shame, recently sparked rumors of impropriety, I wish to assure you, sir, that my intentions toward your daughter are nothing but honorable.”

Dad’s head snaps up. There’s tomato sauce in his beard that looks like the blood of his enemies. “What intentions?”

Hadrian doesn’t skip a beat. “That is the object of my presence today. I wish if I may, sir, to speak with you privately after this exquisite luncheon.”

Dad flashes me a wary glance. “You can speak here and now.”

Oh God. This is it. I dart a worried look at Hadrian, who responds with a solemn nod. He means to do this alone, as is tradition on Thule.

“What’s for dessert?” I ask my dad, just a little too fast and too loud. Juvenal’s ears perk up from the sofa.

“Bought a mousse cake,” Dad replies somberly.

“Amazing! I, um . . . I’ll get the cake. It’s in the fridge, right?”

Dad confirms with an absent nod, his hawkish blue gaze never leaving Hadrian, as if he might be able to trigger my fiancé’s combustion from where he sits.

I rise from my chair, exchanging one last look with Hadrian before leaving him to face Cerberus while I hurry to the kitchen, Juvenal hot on my heels. I’d be lying if I said I’m paying any attention to the luscious mixed berries mousse cake I’ve just removed from the fridge. Straining my ears over the tinkle of the dessert plates and spoons, I pick up a low, steady hum—Hadrian is talking to Dad.

Dad’s outraged response bursts from the living room barely a second later. “What do you mean marriage?”

Heavy footsteps stomp my way; Dad’s face pops into the kitchen doorway, livid. “Possum, what’s he talking about?”

I raise the cake plate in front of me like a shield. “Well, it’s . . . like he told you. I mean, I’ve said yes already.”

“But it’s literally the first time I’ve seen him, and you’ve known each other for what, two months?”

Behind Dad, Hadrian looks like a condemned man standing dignifiedly on the scaffold.

“Seven,” I correct.

Dad’s expression slackens. “Are you pregnant?”

“Oh wow . . . no. Absolutely not. It has nothing to do with that.”

Okay, it may remotely have something to do with it. The stark reality of Hadrian’s and my situation is that as far as Logres polite society is concerned, I’ve been living with him at Thunor Hall, not as his fiancée but as his mistress, for the past two months. While Sage and I have never been happier, the strong flavor of impropriety wafting from the three of us may eventually have a price. The longer Hadrian and I brave conventions and live “in sin,” the more difficult it’ll be for Sage and me to be accepted into Logres’s ultraconservative society. And we won’t live trapped in yet another bubble at Thunor Hall; I won’t allow it.

And to compound this, yes, Hadrian and I haven’t been exerting much caution where contraception is concerned—that’s how he worded it a few days ago as we both lay in his bed, veins ablaze and basking in a literal afterglow. What a gentlemanly way to state that we’ve been all over each other almost every night without any protection since the day I returned to Thunor Hall. Granted, being spawn of Sefnos, there’s a possibility that Floe and I might be sterile. But if it turns out I’m not . . .

I glance down at my hands gripping the cake plate, at the delicate band circling my finger that my father didn’t notice—a wreath of intertwined silver leaves cradling a small cabochon of gleist. 

No. It’s not about any of this.

Exhaling slowly, I tell Dad, “I love you, but this isn’t up for discussion. I chose him, and he makes me happy.” And that’s all that matters in the end. There may be practical stakes to our tying the knot, but ultimately, I’ll take the jump because I want to. More than anything else.

Dad’s features slacken. He seems a little lost, as if I had betrayed him on a fundamental level in allowing myself to grow up and leave the nest for good. “Possum . . . It’s different over there. What if—”

“I’m safe. I will be safe,” I say firmly over the cake.

In any other situation, Dad might have a valid point: legally speaking, married women, especially daughters of the Table, are negligible quantities in Logres. They can’t vote, divorce, or own property. They have no say in any decision concerning their children either, being regarded as a legal extension of their husband, a vaguely sentient lump attached to his arm.

I’m no lump, thank you very much. Hadrian and I have had lengthy conversations about the legal hurdles I’ll have to face in Logres on a daily basis and how we intend to circumvent those. Much as I hate to admit it, the better part of our plans involves him or his steward signing papers for me and Sage at will, at least for now. Hadrian and several other knights are backing a string of ambitious reforms, the first of which would be the right to unilateral divorce for women.

To my surprise, the loudest voice around the Table in favor of this turned out to be Mordred. I’ve since learned that Mordrigjo recognizes gender equality in all civil and military matters. Then again, I already suspected so after witnessing the way his sister, Morgain, held her own on a battlefield. Mordred’s mother, the Dowager Queen of Mordrigjo, hounds him relentlessly on the new bill: from her perspective, Logres is stuck in medieval times.

So yes, it is different over there, and no, it won’t be easy. There may be setbacks, frustration, perhaps even secret tears, but times are changing on Thule. I can see it all around us, from the new city the Children have started building on the ruins of Ragnell Castle to the travel permits we used to visit Dad today; a year ago, the very idea would have been unimaginable.

Hadrian takes a tentative step toward Dad, who turns around with narrowed eyes and clenched fists.

“Sir, if I may . . .”

“Nah, boy. I don’t think you may,” Dad snaps back.

“And yet I shall. River will never be my prisoner, or anyone else’s for that matter. And if you do not trust me on the matter, trust Director Wolk, whose dedication to your daughters’ well-being may not be doubted.”

My eyebrows jolt. Did His Grace just, kind of, maybe, praise his former friend? I don’t think they’ve had a single informal exchange since Ragnell. 

Eliud meant well, but in his desperation to protect Floe, he lied to Hadrian, manipulated him, and the incident tore a rift between the two that I’d feared might never close. It seems I was wrong about that.

Dad’s jaw works in silence as he ponders Hadrian’s words. When we first arrived in Brocéliande, he was on the fence about Eliud, but I think he’s come to appreciate the man’s quiet, direct manners and his ruthless efficiency when it comes to answering Floe’s every need. Cakes from her favorite bakery in Camelot will be funneled through the Crêpe Highway within the hour if she so much as suggests that she misses their taste.

“Does that mean I’ll have to go there?” Dad eventually asks, waving an evasive hand at the ceiling.

Well, that looks a lot like a white flag from where I stand.

I shake my head with a grin as I make my way back to the living room. “No. They won’t let humans cross under any circumstances. But we’ll do something small here in the backyard! I have a friend in Camelot who’s going to help me organize everything.” I’ll have to rein Sfjona in, lest she turns this whole operation into a second royal wedding. She was quivering from head to toe at the prospect of not only crossing over to the other side but organizing a stylish ceremony there. There will be frilly ribbons and flowers. Lots of them.

By the time my father sits down and accepts a slice of mousse cake, I can tell he’s been mollified by my reassurance that he won’t be forced to attend a formal event 290 light-years away from Earth. He gauges Hadrian dolefully, resigning himself. “You ever been on a bike?”

“I’m afraid not, sir.”

My dad slowly shakes his head, only to look away from his plate when the rumble of an engine in the courtyard reaches us.

All three of us turn to the window. Outside, drizzle is now misting the glass as a metal-blue sports car and two SUVs park in front of the house. Eliud’s bowler hat and Floe’s bob cut are unmistakable even through his car’s hazy windshield.

“They’re early . . .” Dad grumbles, rising from his chair. He flashes an anxious glance at Hadrian, who rises in his turn.

“I shall take my leave, sir,” Hadrian assures him.

I take his hand to stop him. Floe knew Hadrian would be here at this hour, and she’s perfectly capable of using a watch—as is Eliud. If she came home early, it’s because she decided to.

Footsteps crush the gravel outside; the entrance door creaks to the tune of low voices in Thulish—Eliud is ordering some of his men to return to Thule.

Floe’s soft voice precedes her. “Pray forgive our intrusion. The weather was, I’m afraid, too inclement to allow for a walk.”

I register Hadrian’s sharp intake of air as she appears in the open doorway connecting the entrance hall to the living room. It’s the first he’s facing Floe since we freed her from Ragnell Castle, a broken, shivering doll Eliud carried out of her cell. Director Wolk, by the way, stands in the shadows behind her, his expression guarded as he tips his head in greeting.

I study the short black locks brushing Floe’s rosy cheeks, her hesitant expression, and the flower-printed dress covering her from neck to ankles. She’s become a cutting-edge modestista since she discovered that you could shop modest dresses online and that there’s a whole subculture dedicated to that style. I pause my inspection at her feet. The peach-colored tennis shoes matching her attire are new.

Floe blushes when she notices the direction of my gaze. “The driver’s handbook recommends sensible shoes.”

“I take it the lessons are going well?” I ask as Juvenal approaches to sniff the newcomers.

She nods and kneels to pet Juvenal. “Yes, but the gearbox is proving somewhat difficult to master.”

“I told you not to drive that antique,” Dad chides.

Eliud steps forward, his jaw set. “Everything in my vehicle is either practically new or maintained in perfect condition.”

Dad shrugs. “And still older than me.”

Eliud’s nostrils flare. “The engine was mounted three years ago.”

“An Italian engine.” Dad snorts as if the very notion were blasphemy.

Floe and I exchange a wince. Here we go again.

To the exception of Hadrian, everyone in the room is aware that Eliud’s car is a 1971 Citroën SM, retrofitted with an F154 twin-turbocharged Ferrari-Maserati engine—four-time winner of the International Engine of the Year. This roaring beast, however, is not the original Maserati V8 that resulted from Citroën buying the Italian maker in 1968 but rather a grandchild of sorts and a successor to the F136. 

We all know this because Eliud will volunteer this information and more to anyone who asks “Oh, what kind of car is this?” A normally reserved man, Director Wolk cannot be stopped if you launch him on the subject of his car’s hydraulic suspension, swiveling headlights, or ridiculously low aerodynamic drag factor. My sister is probably the only thing Eliud loves more than his SM in this sick, sad world.

And what Dad loves is arguing with Eliud about his car. It’s his way of showing appreciation, I guess. As Dad lifts a finger, no doubt about to air his complaints about the SM’s gearbox, grim quacking echoes from the hallway, intensifying until a mallard pops up at Eliud’s feet. That would be Baguette, my father’s pet duck and Floe’s unofficial bodyguard.

Juvenal backs away from Floe and flutters inquisitive eyelashes at the “choleric Anatidae,” as Hadrian likes to refer to him. Baguette’s obsidian eyes twitch. He wags his tail.

Oh God.

“Baguette . . .” Floe warns softly as the duck swivels his head to side-eye Juvenal.

“He’s quite territorial,” Floe says apologetically, bending to pick him up.

Baguette sidesteps her with a vehement quack. 

Now, I rarely—if ever—hear Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly playing in my head, but I’m definitely hearing those lone flute notes at the moment, carried by a threatening drum as Baguette flaps his wings and waddles ahead, quacking furiously.

Sedājī, Baguette!” Stop, Baguette! Eliud commands—to no avail. 

Juvenal pivots and trots to safety between Hadrian’s legs. Baguette stops to scan the only obstacle standing between him and his prey: An ichorite five times his size, hailing from one of Thule’s most powerful bloodlines and capable of funneling the abundant ichor of Brocéliande to summon lightning itself. A man who killed a god.

Like that could ever stop him.

Baguette stretches out his wings and flies straight at Hadrian, who tries awkwardly to move Juvenal to safety while the duck pecks at his arm, then his head. Hadrian falls backward. Baguette lunges at his jugular with a war quack. Feathers fly; a barking Juvenal runs off to hide under the dining table. The living room spirals into chaos as I try to catch Baguette while Floe pleads with the duck to let go of His Grace.

A formidable shout thunders across the battlefield: Dad’s exultant voice. “Kill him, Baguette! Fucking kill him! Good boy! That’s my boy! END. HIM.”

All right. That was a disaster.

“Here. I made hot cocoa.”

There’s something almost unreal about seeing Floe serve Hadrian a steaming cup as he recovers from Baguette’s vicious attack, with Juvenal at his feet. Dad left to tattoo a neighbor after rewarding the duck’s crushing victory with a small piece of mousse cake. He’ll come around. Oddly, I think Baguette wrecking Hadrian sort of helped things: Dad seemed in a lighter mood when he jumped on his bike.

Temporarily stripped of the armor of His Grace, Hadrian goes to sit on a sofa, small and uncomfortable under Floe’s patient gaze. She’s unexpectedly serene; I think something healed in her while I was away. The gentle, refined manners she was taught on Thule are now imbued with renewed confidence . . . and a touch of humor. I bite back a laugh when I realize that she piped a dollop of whipped cream in the shape of a duck on top of the beverage, complete with two chocolate sprinkles to evoke angry eyes.

Hadrian clears his throat as he looks from the cream duck to its live counterpart. Baguette surveys us from his bed at the other end of the living room. He fluffs his feathers menacingly before snuggling back into his fleece blanket.

Floe’s shoulders shake in silent mirth before she manages to compose herself. “Baguette is terribly sorry for his unconscionable behavior, Your Grace.”

“Please do not call me thus,” Hadrian says gently. “We are, after all, to be relatives.”

She ducks her head, not quite meeting his eyes as she takes a cup and saucer from the silver platter she brought and seats herself next to me on the opposite sofa, a velvet brocade barge that could easily welcome six people. “We are, indeed. What a strange turn of events.”

Hadrian takes a cautious sip of the hot cocoa. He’s tried chocolate since Mordred and the Children have started importing it legally on Thule, but cocoa is still regarded with some defiance there. Countless unsubstantiated studies have popped up in newspapers to warn ichorites of the danger of consuming imported goods. “Does it trouble you?” he asks her. 

I cross my legs under me, watching them in silence. I didn’t expect him to be so frank.

“No.” She gives a decisive shake of her head. “I well know that my name is being dragged in the mud by scandal sheets in Logres as we speak and will be even more so in the coming months. But I will never return there. The frivolous convulsions of my peers therefore matter very little to me.” She smiles at me over the gilded rim of her cup. “I am happy for the both of you.”

Spoken like a lady. I toast her with my cup. “Thank you. And if it’s any comfort, the Intelligencer wrote that I’m a courtesan secretly raised by innkeepers in Aballen; they even interviewed my adoptive parents. According to them, I was a good girl who loved sewing before Hadrian showed up at our door to corrupt me.”

Floe conceals a fit of giggles behind her hand. “Oh dear!”

His Grace all but rolls his eyes. “The editorial director will answer to me in court for this particular piece.”

Baguette’s half-hearted quack alerts us to the presence of a silhouette in the doorway. How long has Eliud been standing here? He’s ditched his bowler hat and jacket, but his attire is formal as always: black waistcoat and slacks, scrupulously polished shoes, and, of course, the gold chain of a watch hanging out of his pocket. He leans against the sturdy wood frame, watching us—watching Floe—his expression unreadable.

Floe motions to a fourth cup left untouched on the silver tray. “Do join us.”

He gives a slight bow. “Her ladyship is too kind, but I must return to Camelot soon.”

Disappointment flits over Floe’s features, replaced just as soon by a polite smile.

“I doubt that any matter you have to tend to on the other side is more pressing than Lady Floe’s invitation, Director Wolk,” Hadrian says coolly.

It takes Eliud a whole two seconds to unpeel his shoulder from the door frame. He reluctantly joins Hadrian on the sofa. Uneasy silence thrums around the coffee table as he takes his cup with a grateful nod at Floe. “Perfect as always, my lady.”

He and Hadrian drink in silence, opposites in almost every way. One born at the top of the aristocratic food chain, the other at the bottom. One pale and tall, the other shorter, leaner, and darker skinned, owing to his Meroitic roots—Hadrian has mentioned to me in passing that Eliud’s mother is from Wehemanka. Two grown men incapable of finding the words to weave their friendship back together.

Juvenal stirs against Hadrian’s leg and sits up with a low bark. Figures. Across the room, Baguette has risen from his little bed and is now staring at us. Hadrian’s eyes narrow at the unspoken challenge. I worry he’ll be left with lasting anatidaephobia after today.

Eliud studiously pretends to drink, but his mouth hovers over the rim of his cup. His shoulders shake imperceptibly. His lips quiver as he mumbles something into his hot cocoa.

Hadrian stiffens. “I beg your pardon?”

Eliud’s shoulders shake harder. I catch a flash of white enamel as he grits his teeth in a desperate attempt not to laugh. Husky syllables tumble from his mouth as he loses the fight. “Seifjatou gotjetei . . .” Fucked up by a duck . . .

Floe clasps a hand over her mouth, her eyes wide. I burst out laughing into my half-empty cup. 

Director Wolk has snapped, and he’s unraveling before our eyes. Come to think of it, Floe wrote to me a while back that she worries he works too much. In between husky peels of laughter, he gasps out, “Forgive me . . . my lady.” It’s no use. He resumes laughing even harder as he repeats, “Wirjā seifjatou gotjetei!” You really got fucked up by a duck!

His Grace does his best to look offended, but his mouth is quivering at the corners. “Better than a frog.”

There’s a reference I’m missing here, but I know Eliud used to have a pet frog as a kid. He raised it in the sink of the room he shared with Fāris at the Thulagōga. 

Hadrian’s dry comeback draws another bark of laughter from his friend, who sets his cup back on the tray and slaps his thigh. “Fāris won’t let you live this one down.”

Hadrian leans back in the sofa’s cushions with a pained expression. “Fortunately for me, he will never hear about it.”

“Expect me to message him the moment I arrive in Camelot,” Eliud states, recovering some of his usual composure.

Floe giggles at this. “Better him than the Intelligencer.”

Eliud looks at her, arrested. Did her ladyship just crack a joke? She did, and as the rain begins pouring in earnest outside and blurs the colors of Brocéliande into a palette of greens and gray, it dawns on me that this day went well.

Better than well.

It is but a moment in time.

A perfect moment.

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