Sandry didn't sneak into the great hall, exactly, but she did come directly from the stables, without having her presence announced: there would be plenty of time for ceremony later. First she wanted to say hello to the important people.
“It's about time.” The baron's voice was clipped, almost anxious. He swept her up into a hug before the side door had even closed behind her.
“Erdogun, it's all right,” she said, into his shoulder. The cloth of his tunic trembled against her cheek. “You got word we were out of Namorn, didn't you?”
“Yes, of course.” He straightened, loosening his hug and gripping her shoulders gently instead. “But he's been so worried, Sandry. It's too much for him.”
“Well, I'm home now.” He showed no sign of wanting to let her go. She reached up, using her fingertips to smooth worry lines from his forehead and even his bald crown, as she used her magic to smooth his rumpled tunic. “I'm home to stay, so you can both stop fussing.”
“I never doubted that you could take care of yourself.”
“No. But you were worried about Uncle, because he worried about me. You can stop now.” She patted his cheek. “Really.”
He cast his eyes down, but not before Sandry saw them flood with relief. His hands loosened, and he stepped away from her, reaching one arm up to casually rub the back of his neck.
“It's been that bad?” she asked gently, stepping further into the great hall. There was a bench a few yards away, and she tried to subtly steer Erdogun toward it.
“You've no idea,” he said, with feeling. “He's been picking at his food, barely sleeping, waking up in the middle of the night.” He dropped bonelessly onto the bench. “The Namornese ambassador has been dropping hints that she knows something we don't, and Vedris – oh, gods, Sandry. What if the strain had been too much for him? What would I do?”
Sandry sat beside the baron and rested a hand on his upper back. He was shaking a little, though he didn't seem to realize it. “Where is he now?” she asked.
“Still sleeping, I hope,” he said, and Sandry blinked. It was late morning – Sandry and her friends had gotten as far as Winding Circle the night before – but the duke had never been one to lie abed as the day slipped by. “I told you, he hasn't been. I thought it would get better, after we heard you were on your way home, but it's been as bad as ever.”
She sat up straighter, pulling her hands into her lap and weaving her fingers together. “You know a good deal about Uncle's sleeping habits,” she said.
The baron looked her in the eye. “That I do,” he confirmed, voice as steady and precise as ever.
“Well.” She laughed. “I didn't see that coming.”
He shrugged, rubbing the back of his neck again. “It was a bit of surprise to me, too,” he said softly. “At first. I've been devoted to him for a long time, as you know. I'm not sure, myself, when the nature of that devotion began to change, but shortly after you left, I learned that my feelings were not – are not – unreciprocated.”
Sandry considered this. She had been disappointed when her uncle's romance with Yazmin Hebet didn't last, and she had found each of his successive ladies to be some variation on insipid, shallow, or grasping. She'd despaired at the thought of any of them joining the family on a permanent basis. But she already had a great deal of liking and respect for the man seated beside her.
“I don't know what he'd do without you to keep things in order,” she finally said. “So for all our sakes, I hope it lasts.”
A voice carried from the other side of the room. “I think I can assure you that it will.”
“Uncle!” Sandry jumped from her seat and ran for Vedris, wrapping her arms around his neck. “I thought I told you not to worry about me.”
He held her tightly, tears leaking from his eyes. “Try and stop me.”
“I will try,” she said, lifting her chin in teasing defiance. “Especially now I know your worrying will disrupt the sleep of someone I like.”
Just behind Sandry, Erdogun laughed, taking the hand Vedris held out to him. Sandry kissed her uncle's cheek, and then stepped back, beaming at them both.