"Well, I sure don't see anyone suspicious hanging around here," said Hugh, barely suppressing a yawn. "Why not go back to the camp and call it a night?"
"Because the note said 'midnight'," replied Hazel. "Which is still ... half an hour away."
"Do you also serve milk?" Roddy inquired of one of the serving girls. "Our friend here's a little too young for anything stronger, I'm afraid. He's usually in bed by this hour."
"What? I am not!" protested Hugh. "I'm just as old as you are!"
"You don't act like it," Oscar commented.
"And I don't have a twin-brother," Roddy said.
"What does that have to do with anything?" Hugh demanded.
"It means you can't be exactly as old as he is," explained Hazel.
"We'll have four mugs of ale, please. The home-brewn kind's good enough," said Roddy.
"The note also said 'come alone'," Hugh pointed out to Hazel, abandoning the subject of his age for the moment. "And it was addressed to Zeke, not to any one of us."
"Zeke's one of us, too, surely?" said Oscar, accepting his mug of ale with a nod of thanks.
"He's the prince's knight," Hazel objected. "Lucky bastard doesn't have to worry about the captain grounding him for the rest of his life, or making him do nothing except chop firewood for half a year."
"Hmm. Zeke's an okay guy," Roddy declared, lifting his mug. "To his highness, the prince!"
"May he live long and prosper," said Hugh, sipping his ale and grimacing.
"With Zeke around, I'm not so sure about that last." Hazel grinned. "Besides, with two elder brothers to find wives for, I doubt if his majesty the king's in any hurry to marry off Prince Christian."
"Speaking of which, why isn't Zeke around?" asked Hugh. "I mean, the note was for him."
"Zeke's busy," said Roddy. "Besides, this is obviously a trap."
"Busy doing what?" inquired Hugh, taking a second sip of ale and trying not to wince at the taste.
"Prince Christian," Hazel quipped. Oscar kicked him under the table.
"We shouldn't drink too much and keep our eyes open for trouble," he said.
"I told you I don't see anyone suspicious," said Hugh.
"Bad guys don't have to look suspicious." Roddy put his empty mug on the table. "I mean, look at that guy the captain got all hung up on."
"They were old friends from the academy," Oscar said. "It's not like the captain suddenly decided he liked him or anything like that."
"I'm not sure if 'old friends' is the right term." Roddy waved at the serving girl, requesting a refill.
"Huh?" Hugh's mug was still two-thirds full and he felt it would probably stay that way.
"It's more like they were - hey!" Hazel glared at Oscar. "What's your problem?"
"We shouldn't gossip about the captain," said Oscar.
"Why not? We gossip about the princes, too," Hugh said.
"Yeah, but everybody gossips about the princes," said Oscar.
"Heads up, guys. Someone new just walked in, and if he's not who we've been waiting for, I'll eat my horse, saddle and all." Roddy emphatically turned his back to the door through which the newcomer had entered. "Just in time, too."
"But it's half an hour to midnight," Hugh said.
"People who come for secret meetings are always early," said Roddy. "To check for spies and such."
"And guardsmen who are hoping to catch them," Oscar added. "We'd better lay low and not draw attention to ourselves."
"Not that low, you idiot!" Roddy yanked Hugh back up by his collar. "Act natural, like you come here with your friends every evening of the week."
"He looks kind of suspicious with that dark cloak," Hugh whispered.
"Notice that clasp? I bet he's another one of that Red Brigade." Roddy nodded.
"It's not the same as the ones those assassins who attacked Prince Christian wore," Hazel objected.
"Well, obviously they must have changed its design after they knew we'd seen one," said Roddy.
"He can't be the guy who Zeke was supposed to meet with, though," Hugh said.
"Why not?" asked Roddy, frowning.
"Because he looks so completely suspicious," Hugh said. "See? Spies are supposed to blend in, not stand out. You said so yourself. So anyone who we think is a spy, can't be one."
"That almost made sense," Hazel congratulated him. "Are you going to finish that ale, by the way?"
"No," replied Hugh.
"Doesn't he make you feel like a cradle-robber sometimes?" Oscar inquired of Roddy.
"Shut up, I don't want to talk about it," said Roddy.
"That guy who just came in is looking in our direction," Hazel observed softly. "He might be our man, or he might be not, but we're still royal guards of Aran, in a place where they probably don't like either royal guards or people from Aran, so let's not make any trouble, shall we?"
"I thought tavern-brawls were traditionally part of the fun of going out for a drink," said Hugh.
Oscar gave Roddy a pointed look.
"What?" Roddy said. "It's not my fault he reads all those silly books."
"Besides, he's right," Hazel put in. "Nothing like a good brawl to end a night of drinking. Of course," he added hastily, noticing the expression on Oscar's face, "that's only in Aran."
The man whom Hugh had declared to look too suspicious to be a spy crossed the room, one hand holding his mug, the other loosely resting on the pommel of his sword.
"And you don't draw your sword in a tavern-brawl," Roddy informed Hugh, who had begun to reach for his own sword. "You don't want to end up killing someone by accident."
"I smell Aranese spies."
"Just ignore him," Roddy told Hugh, loud enough to be overheard. "He's obviously drunk."
"Hey, spies, what are you doing here, bothering good, honest people?"
"You're the only one here who's bothering good, honest people around here," Hazel said, pretending not to feel Oscar kicking his shins. "We're just a couple of friends having a drink."
"I sure haven't seen any of you before today. And I come here every night. Ask anyone - they'll tell you Hammond's the man to talk to if you're new around here and want someone to show you around."
"Thank you very much for the offer, but we're just passing through. We're with the caravan of Master Brigadoon, the merchant. You may have heard of him." Roddy attempted a smile.
"Why don't you let us buy you a drink and you can tell us a bit more about this town?" Hugh added. His smile seemed almost genuine, unlike Roddy's, which had become a little strained.
"Did you all hear that?" Hammond put his hands on his hips and looked around the room. "They tried to bribe me with a drink! Me, honest Hammond Harrier!" He turned back to glower at Roddy and Hugh. "Well, let me tell you, spies, that you picked the wrong place, and the wrong man."
"I told you, we're not spies," Roddy protested. "My friend was just trying to be nice."
"Ooh, guess who's sleeping by his lonesome self for the rest of the week," Hazel whispered to Oscar, ignoring the hurt look Hugh sent in his direction.
"You'd say that, wouldn't you?" Hammond snorted.
"Yes, I'd say that, because it happens to be true!" Roddy jumped up. "And I'm getting mightily tired of your insults. Why don't you go home?"
"Why don't you go home?" Hammond shot back. "Go back to Aran, you stinking spies! We don't want your kind around here!"
"Things are starting to get a little warm, wouldn't you agree?" Hazel said cheerfully, rising.
"I'd say it's definitely getting hot in here," Oscar replied.
"C'mon, Hugh. Looks like tonight's your lucky night. A real tavern-brawl, up, close and personal." Hazel cracked his knuckles, grinning at several of the other customers who'd risen to stand next to Hammond.
"I've been in fights before, you know," Hugh said.
"Yeah, but - oh damn. That guy's got a crossbow." Hazel pushed forwards, shoving aside a few surprised bystanders to reach the man he'd seen lifting a crossbow. Unfortunately, while the first few people he ran into were too surprised to make things difficult for him, the ones behind them weren't about to let any of Hammond's 'spies' get away.
"Crossbows are allowed in tavern-brawls, but swords aren't? What's up with that?" Hugh inquired.
"I'd be seriously worried about you, if I thought you meant it," Oscar said.
"Heh." Hugh grinned. "Now, let's show these guys why they shouldn't mess with men of Aran."
"Sounds like a plan," Oscar said.
"Roddy! Look out!" Hazel yelled.
Hugh lunged forwards, seeing what Roddy and Oscar appeared to have missed, pushing Roddy out of the way. A distant part of his mind commented that he'd been right - none of them had noticed the man with the crossbow until he'd stood up and aimed his weapon at Roddy.
If it'd been Zeke he'd been waiting for, things certainly could have become ugly, had Zeke come all by himself, instead of accompanied by three friends, like Roddy had.
"Ouch," Hugh said, staring at the crossbow-bolt that had hit what he hoped to be nothing vital. It hurt a lot, at first, and then it didn't hurt at all anymore.
A little distance away, Zeke O'Brien looked at the sky and contemplated that the journey had been decidedly ... uneventful thus far. He wouldn't quite say 'boring' although he was tempted - Chris had told him they'd have to be careful in public, and Zeke understood that, he really did.
The men from the guard did their best to make him feel like he was one of them, but Zeke felt like there always was a certain distance between them and him. They'd been together for years, after all, and he was a newcomer, an outsider. He couldn't join in in their good-natured teasing - he didn't know about Hugh being a bookworm, or Oscar having slept in the stables for weeks in a row when his mare had been carrying, or Roddy and Hazel having held a drinking-contest on their first night as guards.
He felt ill at ease when they traded gossip about the people at court and their possible lovers, always wondering if they knew about him and Chris, and how they would react if they found out. Perhaps, he'd thought, he should simply ask - not specifically about what they'd think about his being Prince Christian's lover, but about how they felt about men who loved other men. A casual comment, perhaps, about some duke or count having looked at one of their retainers in a certain kind of way ...
Zeke sighed. Subtlety and intrigue weren't his strong points, and well he knew it.
"What's a young man like you sitting out here by his lonesome self in the cold for, eh?" Master Brigadoon stared down at him. "Shouldn't you be in a warm tavern getting drunk, Sir Zeke?"
"I don't care for taverns very much," Zeke said. It wasn't a complete lie - during his days at the academy, he'd visited taverns often enough, but after Chris had arrived, things like that had seemed ... less important, and less attractive. "And I felt like being alone for a while."
"Better be careful." Brigadoon grunted and sat down, apparently not interpreting Zeke's reply as a hint that he didn't want any company. "We're in enemy territory now, you know. Spend too much time away from where others can see you, and people might start thinking you're a spy."
Zeke gave him an incredulous look. Surely his loyalty couldn't be in any doubt - the whole idea of his being a spy was simply too ridiculous for words.
"Just a friendly warning." Brigadoon shrugged. "You can tell yourself that's never going to happen to you. Maybe you'd even be right. Still, there's a nice place around here - called The Eagle's Beak, if my memory's correct. Good ale, lousy food. Haven't seen the prince around for a while."
Zeke blinked at the sudden change in subject. "Prince Christian said he would turn in early, as the journey had exhausted him. I expect he's sound asleep in his tent by now." His tent, which Zeke wouldn't enter, for both their sakes. He might tell himself he only wanted a look, only wanted to see if Chris was all right, but he knew the temptation would be too much, the time they'd been pretending to be nothing more than prince and knight too long.
"You expect that, eh?" Brigadoon rose. "Let me tell you something. Royalty never does what you expect them to do. If you get involved with them, don't get your hopes up that it'll last, and don't count on anything at all. You'll get hurt if you do. Now, I think I'll go get a drink. You should do the same. You're still young; live a little. Visit taverns when you get the chance."
"Thank you for the advice," Zeke said politely, remembering that both of the king's advisors had warned him not to underestimate this man. "I'll be certain to keep it in mind."
"Humph." Brigadoon left, rather more loudly than he'd come.
Zeke shook his head. Perhaps he should go to bed, make sure he'd get a good night's sleep. It was rather late, after all, and thinking about what was troubling him didn't seem to provide him with any easy answers or solutions.
"Help! Someone!" Chris panted, exhausted from running the brief distance from the tavern to the camp. "Is anyone awake?" This was no good at all; his voice was barely more than a squeak. He'd have to go and look for someone - for Zeke, maybe, or Stephan. Neither of them would be pleased when they found out where he'd been, although Zeke should at least understand. And Chris had really expected Zeke would show up in that tavern, after Chris had sent him that note.
Zeke and he hadn't had a lot of opportunities to talk in private recently, but Chris had been sure he wasn't the only one missing their intimacy, the cherished moments of privacy they'd had back home.
"Chris!" Zeke seemed to appear out of nowhere, fully dressed and sword half-drawn. Maybe he'd been intending to meet Chris after all? The note had said midnight, even if Chris himself had been a full hour early, shyly trying to explain to the tavernkeeper why he wanted to rent a room for later on.
"What's wrong?" Zeke demanded. "Were you attacked by an assassin?"
"No, no." Chris shook his head. "It's Hugh! There was this man with a crossbow and - "
Zeke held up his hand. "Calm down a little. You're not making any sense right now."
Chris nodded and tried to breathe normally. "I was in a tavern." Zeke opened his mouth, but Chris quickly continued: "With all four of the guards." They hadn't known he was there, true, only that was a mere detail. They'd been there. "But then someone accused us of being spies, and people started fighting, and Hugh got shot. They got him out, but he's not talking, and nobody I've asked knows any doctors around here."
"I wouldn't trust any doctor who's from around here not to try and make things worse anyway," Zeke said. "People from Aran are not well liked in this area, Chri- your highness."
Chris was puzzled at Zeke's sudden formality, until he noticed Stephan striding up to the two of them.
"Prince Christian." Stephan's gaze swept over Chris' clothes. "Is there some sort of trouble?"
"Stephan! Hugh has gotten injured! He needs help!" Chris knew he was probably sounding a little hysterical, but there was no time to stand around here, talking, while Hugh might be dying.
"Can you direct me to where he is, your highness?" Stephan asked, frowning. "And were his attackers still around, that you know?"
Chris shook his head. "No, they'd all been taken care of. It's just outside the tavern. It's - "
"I know where it is, thank you, your highness." Stephan glanced at Zeke. "Stay put, and don't venture outside of the camp for now. Zeke, I entrust you with his highness' safety."
Zeke nodded tersely.
"What's all this commotion? Can't an old man get a rest around here?" Brigadoon complained, arriving two steps before a harried-looking Luke.
"It seems one of my men has seen fit to get himself injured in a tavern-brawl," Stephan said. "It's nothing to concern yourself with, Master Brigadoon."
"But Hugh got shot!" Chris protested. "It wasn't just a tavern-brawl!"
"Come, your highness, I will escort you to your tent," said Zeke.
Stephan nodded his approval. "I suggest you retreat to your tent as well," he told Brigadoon.
"Are you sure he's dead?" Roddy asked.
Hugh decided that that was definitely his cue to say something to prove that no, he wasn't. Unfortunately, the most he could seem to manage was a kind of low moan, barely louder than a whisper. Maybe he just wasn't dead yet. Maybe he was dying instead of dead.
On the other hand, he'd read that happy and positive thinking was an important part of the healing process. Hugh made an effort, and finally arrived at the thought that if he'd wanted for anyone to hold his hand when he died, it'd definitely be Roddy. Sort of romantic, that was. Like the way he'd jumped in front of Roddy to save his life - giving one's life for one's lover was quite romantic, too, Hugh had always thought. A pity that 'giving one's life' actually meant 'dying'. Upon reflection, Hugh decided that was probably the point, but ... well, wouldn't it be nicer if people actually survived giving their lives so that they could live happily ever after with the person they'd given it for?
"Positive," said Hazel.
"Good riddance, too, I'd say," Oscar put in.
Hugh wondered what he'd ever done to Oscar, to warrant a comment like that. Sure, there'd been that time when he'd tried to put his knowledge about horses to a practical use (and ended up getting yelled at by Oscar, the steward, the captain and the stableboys all in one day) only ...
"Do you think Hugh's going to make it?" asked Hazel. His voice had sounded angry earlier. Now, Hugh decided, it sounded a little worried.
"He's tougher than he looks and acts," said Oscar, and Hugh silently apologized for thinking the worst of him a few seconds ago.
"Well, he'd have to be, wouldn't he?" Roddy replied, sounding rough and like he wasn't about to start crying. Hugh was touched. "Big idiot."
"I wish there was something we could do!" Hazel burst out. "We didn't even catch the spy!"
"You and Roddy sure nailed that guy with the crossbow," said Oscar.
"He was just a flunkie, I bet." Roddy sounded disgusted. "That's how it always goes. We never get our hands on the ones who're behind it all, because they're not the ones who get their hands dirty. Even that bastard Powell only got exiled for trying to poison the king."
"They said it was his lover who made him do it," Hazel said. "And he helped out the king a lot in the past, when Aran gained its independence."
"Lover, huh?" Roddy grunted. "Guess love makes all of us do crazy things every now and then."
"Hugh is going to be fine," Oscar said. "I'm sure."
"Yeah," Hazel added. "It's our own lives we should worry about, not his. The captain's not going to punish him for nearly getting himself killed, but you can bet he's pissed at the rest of us."
"I can't believe this!" Zeke fumed. "You went out on your own, after both me and the captain had told you not to. Worse, you went to a tavern, filled with people who'd kill you without a second thought if they knew who you were. And you got into a fight. Hold still."
Chris squirmed. "It's only a small cut, nothing serious. And the fight just happened - I went to get help as soon as I could. Because I knew I wouldn't be any good anyway." He couldn't quite keep the bitterness out of his voice.
"That doesn't change the fact you snuck away without telling anyone where you were going," Zeke said sternly. "You should have - "
"You'd have said I couldn't go!" Chris interrupted him, stung. It was one thing Zeke had apparently never intended to accept the invitation of his note, but to even scold Chris for not openly asking him was just too much. "I missed you! I missed you so much, I just couldn't bear it anymore!"
Chris sobbed, only exaggerating a little bit as he threw his arms around Zeke.
"We can't - we shouldn't - Chris," started Zeke.
"I missed you," Chris repeated in a muffled whisper.
Chris decided that if he gave Zeke half a chance, Zeke'd probably tell him they couldn't do this, because someone was bound to notice something if Zeke'd be seen coming out of Chris' tent in the morning. The obvious thing to do then, was not to give Zeke the chance to say or think of anything at all. Chris could do that.