When he was very young, Jack used to put bugs in glass jars, like most boys did. All sorts: ladybugs and ants and caterpillars, and once a monarch butterfly that his father had made him set free immediately. The butterfly had had the pull towards Silas that all of its species seemed to, and Jack had watched resentfully while it floated gracefully down to settle on his father’s lapel like a living medal. Even at six he had known it for a metaphor.
He hadn’t thought it would be prophetic. He’s as surely enclosed as any insect in a jar, and dying as surely as any. They’ve pricked little holes into the lid for him, but all the air seeping through is noxious. Lucinda doesn’t seem to realise it yet, and Jack hasn’t the patience to explain it to her, or the courage or inclination to explain any scrap of the truth. Food is brought to them thrice a day, the rooms scrupulously cleaned once. The cleaning-crew restocks their bathroom closets and ensures that the King’s digital eyes and ears are all present and functional. Jack wonders whether the King will be listening when his son loses nerve and fucks his fiancée, or whether it will just be his mother. He puts the thought from him, and offers himself firm reassurance that he does not find it in any way comforting.
When he looks up Lucinda is watching him. She has claimed one of the deep armchairs beside the window as her own, rarely moves from it except to sleep. She is sharper than he had thought, and less interested in frippery. She reads a lot, keeps the guards nominally serving them busy running back and forth from the library: history, mostly, and some esoteric texts on religion marked neatly with Reverend Samuel’s initials; Jack reads comic books and the newest YA adventures, fresh off the press. She is neat and quiet and rolls her eyes every time someone—guards, servants, Thomasina—asks after her health. If he liked women... if he liked women he wouldn’t have been so damned insecure he tried bloody coup against his own father.
He snaps, “What.” It should be louder and possess an interrogative, but he’s too tired to even think invectives in his head.
Lucinda shrugs. “You were smiling. Haven’t seen that in days.” She is currently reading something probably heavier than her torso, and taps a finger thoughtfully at the margins of the page. “Though I suppose I’ve never really seen it, have I?”
“You’re not seeing it now,” he says.
She shrugs and goes back to her book. About five minutes later, just as he’s worked up some interest about the continuing adventures of Katniss Everdeen, she says, carefully nonchalant, “So are we getting out of here soon?”
She might be, but he isn’t and they both know it. Lucinda’s mother is English, she has dual citizenship and her family has a lot of influence which, brought to bear upon Silas, might yet wear him down as water on a rock. Jack belongs to him body and soul. “Not soon,” he offers, and then says in a moment of perversity, “Why don’t you ask Thomasina about it?”
She nods like that’s actually a sensible suggestion, and in about another minute is busily making notations in the margins of her book with an extremely blunt pencil. Note to self, Jack thinks viciously, must ask jailer cause of imprisonment and possible date of release.
But then Thomasina comes in two days later with their lunch for her weekly inspection, and Lucinda asks her outright. Jack, gobbling his salmon with his head down and eyes on his plate, snaps his head up hard enough to hurt and quick enough to catch how Thomasina stumbles minutely over her answer. Lucinda, if she notices, gives every appearance of obliviousness, and continues to stare up with an air of innocent anticipation.
Thomasina has been his father’s amanuensis since he was one. There is nothing they do not know about each other, and the smiles they exchange are identical in their cruelty. She says, “Well, miss, I’m afraid that depends on Jack here, really,” and ruffles his hair on her way out.
Jack breaks both wine glasses before the waiting guards can stop him.
Lucinda gives him till night to stew it over. Over dinner she asks, “Who are you supposed to close your eyes and think of?”
He glares at her wordlessly. In the first week that would’ve been enough to make her back the hell off, but now she simply raises an eyebrow at him and waits him out. Some days, this girl. “My lover,” he mutters, unwilling to give up the scant cover of neutral nouns. “Dead now.”
Lucinda’s mouth tucks into itself in her usual expression of concern: it makes her look like a dying fish, and he’s made sure to tell her as much on previous occasions. There’ve been a lot of occasions, this last month. “I had a boyfriend,” she offers. “Not one of the ones who got reported by the paparazzi; when I was younger. He was only a couple years older than me.”
“Did he die?” He doesn’t actually care, but it seems the only conceivable reason for her to bring it up, and he wants to hurry it along, brutalise her so she doesn’t stray too close to his secrets.
“At the front,” she says steadily. “How did your boyfriend die?”
“Never said it was a man.”
She laughs at him, long and mirthless. “Oh, please. If it was a woman you’d have had her splashed all over the magazines.”
“Maybe she was a beggar or a whore. Maybe Silas disapproved.”
“Or maybe you could drop the act and just tell me. When are you ever going to get anyone who can’t do you any harm to listen to you again?”
That’s bullshit, of course. Anyone can do harm, sometimes the harm isn’t in the information as much as it is the one who is receiving it. Sometimes more. But that’s specious at best.
“His name was Joseph Lasille,” Jack says. “He was... I... he sent me a video, saying he was going to out both of us, because he thought I shouldn’t have to hide. Thomasina found it.“
Lucinda winces. “The Queen can’t have been happy.”
“She had him killed. Because he was in love with me.” He can actually say it now. He doesn’t even feel much of anything when he says it. Maybe he’s healed. “Samuels spoke at his funeral; I went to go see him buried. Wouldn’t like to be buried myself, too damned dark, and wet. Worms.”
“Yeah,” Lucinda says, suddenly far away. “Yeah, I get that. Jack, it’s okay.” She touches his cheek with one cold hand.
“It isn’t. What the hell is okay about any of this?” He reaches up and wraps a hand around her wrist, shaking her slightly. “How the fuck is any of this okay?”
“Does anyone else know about Joseph?” she says challengingly.
“My mother and Thomasina. And Katrina Ghent, but she’s dead.”
“Murderers don’t count. So, now I know.”
“What good’s that doing me?” He tries a smile on for ghastly size. “Gonna attempt blackmail? Go right ahead.”
She hits him. Not very hard, but he can tell, after the first moment of red rage, that that’s a case of ability rather than desire. She looks something other than pretty for the first time since he’s met her. “No! What is wrong with you, that you can’t accept comfort?”
“Needing comfort is weakness,” he informs her in a rote voice, and crushes her hand in his fist when she attempts another slap. “You can’t show weakness when you have ambition.” She comes at him with the other hand, and he catches that easily as well, shoves her back against the wall and leans in close. “I was the perfect son, the perfect officer, the perfect prince: I went to war, and I did my duty by the throne, and I did everything my parents expected. And I still got nowhere; my own father had so little faith in me that I had to attempt a coup, because he would rather adore a commoner, a peasant than see his own son for what he was. And all of that, all of this, happened because I had one goddamned weakness, just one. And now he’s dead, and I might as well be, so don’t. Fucking do not talk to me about weaknesses.” He shakes her once more for emphasis before he lets go, and turns away, feeling hollowed out. Joseph. God.
She clenches a hand into the material of his shirt, and begins a move that would have whirled him around if he hadn’t outweighed her by twenty kilos—or if she’d been better trained: he’s been slammed into the ground by girls who were every bit as thin—but only succeeds in wrenching his shoulder back around partway. As far as ploys to gain attention go, it’s not among the worst. Her face is better. She looks ugly and enraged and utterly captivating. “I’m here because of you,” she screams, and digs her nails in a little deeper. “I’ve been locked into a single suite of rooms, and I haven’t got to see sunlight, and I have to stay in here and make nice because you decided at some party that I looked gullible enough to be made into your beard, and now I’m caught up in your family’s utterly psychotic expressions of love and I don’t know whether I’ll ever get out, and I don’t know why the hell my parents haven’t got me out yet.” She drags in one breath and then another, loosens her grip on him and brushes the wrinkles out of his shirt. When she starts speaking again, her voice has dropped down out of the high registers of terror. “And I’m beginning to wonder whether they know that I’m still even alive, or whether they’re even alive and I know that you’ve been having a difficult time as well, and I’d like to help you if I can, not because I particularly love you anymore but because that’s the only constructive option available to me. So it would help if you could just stop hating me because I’m not your boyfriend, since that’s a little out of my hands, and I’m kinda getting nervous about going to sleep around you. Alright?”
Some days, this girl. “I’m not likely to rape you,” he ventures, trying to make a weak joke of it.
“I’m more concerned you might kill me,” she informs him, coolly like she’s telling him what her favourite flower is. “Besides, it’s not rape if I give consent.”
“Forgot that getting a kid out of this was your only concern.”
She stamps on his instep with her heel. Lucinda wears six-inch stilettos, and used to do ballet as a kid. It hurts like hell. “Getting a grandchild out of this is your parents’ only concern,” she says while he tries to keep an eye on her and rub his foot at the same time. “I just want to get both of us out this alive.”
“You and the heir presumptive?”
She rolls her eyes and he hops back a step. It makes her laugh. “Myself and my fiancé the dolt. Look, Jack, you’ve got to trust me, alright?”
“Trust you.” He doesn’t particularly dislike her at this moment, but the thought of smashing her face against the wall till it breaks and bleeds is still overwhelmingly strong. “Why the fuck would I do that.”
“Because I can’t get out of here without your cooperation any more than you can without mine. If I were a guy and it was Michelle, sure. But you’re not straight enough to just get hard because a girl’s on top of you, so I can’t really rape you in an effective way.”
It might say a lot of awful things about Jack, but her utter nonchalance about rape is what wins him over. He wonders what the King’s ears and eyes make of it.
Michelle is bundled into a van with the logo of her mother’s favourite florist stamped on the side, and driven carefully out through the service entrance onto the streets of Shiloh. It is broad daylight, and she has known the proprietress and driver for above half her life. Michelle has always thought of getaways as sordid endeavours that happen in the dead of night and involve desperate individuals. In this as in all other things, she is clearly wrong. She is the only occupant of the vehicle in any degree of despair.
After the third time she tries to break free when the van is stopped at a traffic light, Hannah, who is stronger than her sixty years would advertise, slaps her hard enough to send her reeling against her seat. “I’m sorry, miss,” Hannah tells her, wrapping a heavy rope coil upon coil around her arms from wrist to elbow, “but your royal mother wouldn’t be too happy if we let you get loose, and you in your delicate condition.”
Michelle comes rocking up, bewildered and head ringing. “You hit me.”
“Did I give you a concussion, too?” Hannah hunts around inside a capacious handbag and digs up a loaf of garlic bread and uses a villainous knife to spread it thickly over with cheese. “I’m betting you haven’t had any breakfast, miss, so you’ve got to be getting a fair bit hungry now. So I’m going to feed you this, and you’re not going to try and bite my hand.”
“Or you’ll hit me again.’
Hannah grins like the sweet old grandmother Michelle had always thought she was. “Belike I shall, miss, if you try to bite me. Only human nature.”
“I’m the princess of Gilboa!”
“And your mother the Queen just handed me you and told me to get away. There’s money in the offing for me if I obey her. What d’you think I’m likely to get if I try to obey you?” She doesn’t tell Michelle that she’s nothing anymore, not a princess or even a citizen, but it’s there all the same.
“Does money mean so much to you? More than a life?” Jack’s voice in her head repeats it in the high, melodramatic register of an operatic diva, and collapses laughing.
Hannah looks like she might agree with him. “That tells me you’ve always had it, miss. And as for life, well, look at it this way, yours isn’t alive yet, my niece’s sprog is two, and kids that age need every silver bit you can spend on them, and when you’re running a small business there’s never a lot left over for a child.”
“I’ll get you money,” Michelle promises, frantic and struggling again. “As much as you want. Just turn me loose.”
Hannah frowns at her. “You would if you had any, I’m not doubting that, miss. But the thing is you can’t lay your hands on a single silver bit right now, and even if you could I wouldn’t disobey your mother.”
“You’re scared of her.”
“Certes I am, miss. She’s the Queen, and I’m still paying mortgage for my store-front. Now be a good girl and eat, you’ll need your strength.”
Michelle eats, grudgingly at first and then ravenously. She’s not hungry, much, but Jack had come home from his first deployment and told her he’d kill her if she ever made a fuss about food ever again. You eat what you get when you can, and you live, ’chelle, till I can come get you. He’d probably kick her into an abortion if he came after her now, and at least her mother is getting her away to a safe place. She finishes the whole loaf, and asks for some water.
“There, miss, that wasn’t so hard, was it?”
“Can you untie my hands? I won’t try to get away.”
Hannah gives this due consideration. “Sure, miss. You won’t get too far even if you do try, we’re out of the city now.”
Her arms hurt worse after being untied than before, blood rushing back. She tries to rub away the pins and needles and to catch a sliver of the view. The only way in which this van accords with the getaway vehicles of her mind is the way the windows are painted over. She can’t make out a single thing. “Where are you taking me?”
“Somewhere you’ll be taken care of, miss. Leave it to ol’ Hannah.” Hannah reaches out and familiarly passes a hand over Michelle’s head. It is a liberty Jack would have bitten her fingers off for, but Jack has tried to take over the monarchy, kill her father, and has threatened to shoot her for not taking a seat, so she feels entirely comfortable ignoring him. Hannah’s fingers are gentle in her hair, and Michelle leans gratefully into the touch; her mother hadn’t even embraced her while bidding farewell.
When they were very young, well before Michelle had slowly grown ill and stayed that way for years, she had been the stronger of the two. Not violent the way Jack was, with his quicksilver mood of sunshine and storm, but able to stand with her spine straight under a shower of blows till Jack melted into shame and joy and kissed her better with elaborate apologies. When she emerged from sick-bed, Jack had been waiting in her room with a florist’s worth of yellow roses and a confectioner’s full store of chocolate, and they had promptly eaten themselves sick while their father made mildly disapproving noises and their mother indulgently rolled her eyes. After they had all gone to sleep, Jack—entirely too old to spend the night in his sister’s bed—had risen grudgingly and smoothed the limp hair back from her brow and kissed it. “You’re incredible,” he’d said, “you’re our rock, ’chelle, how can you be so strong?”
High on pain, she thinks suddenly, absurdly, that she has been strong for this, and not even the terror of her wasting illness. This is what all her strength had been waiting for, and where it has all been spent. She cannot feel her legs, and has never felt less like moving, but she got through it, she’s alive. She knows less about abortions even than getaways, but Lord, should it have hurt so much? Does it always hurt so much? She doesn’t have even the energy to wish herself dead.
When Hannnah comes in, she doesn’t have the energy to shout, to rail against her for her broken promises. She lets herself be cleaned and dressed and taken to her room on a gurney. When they shift her to her bed she finds the strength to turn her face to the wall, and then the world goes mercifully black.
In the darkness behind her eyelids there are flashes and blots of red, bright against the black, and memories of the bloodied scraps that could have been a viable child haunt her dreams. She lies rigidly on her back staring up at the ceiling. Outside her window the heavy redolence of roses fills the air. Sunlight filters in through the closed glass panes and fills the room with a strange, tinted light. She feels as though she is underwater, miraculously breathing but incapable of anything else, inert and flattened by the weight of irreconcilable differences. Hannah comes in twice a day and begs her to eat and she refuses: it has become a bit of a ritual for them; Michelle has not eaten in three days, since the abortion. A doctor came in, this morning, and put her on IV fluids, and tied her arms to the bed so she couldn’t take out the needles. She doesn’t mind, but doesn’t have the strength to tell them as much. She doesn’t want to die, she is simply gathering her strength and biding her time. Someday soon, they’ll have to take her off the IV fluids, let her walk around, let her out of their sight. Hannah and her family are devoted to their queen, but they’re not trained operatives: they’re farmers done good, who own a rose farm near Shiloh and a shop in one of the less-fashionable parts of the city. A model Gilboan family of the sort that shows up smiling on advertisements.
It goes as she thinks it would. Hannah, guilty already about having deceived her, and apparently heart-broken about the way Michelle stares at her grand-nephew, takes her sudden recovery at face-value. By the end of the week Michelle is being taken to her window to look at the roses, by the end of the month she’s taking Hannah’s arm and going on tottering walks through the herb garden, the key to the door clanking against the links of Hannah’s belt.
“You’re better now, miss,” Hannah informs her, “and you’ll be fine soon, and then you can get back home and forget any of this ever happened.”
Michelle nods meek agreement.
“It’s better this way, miss, really. What would you have done with a child at your age, and you still half a baby yourself? And you’re a princess, too, no point in that if you’ve to limit yourself to bed and childbirth, is there now? In this day an’ age, when everyone’s out and about and getting a job before they do anything.”
When Michelle nods absently and wanders off a little distance to peer into the dark heart of a rose, she can feel Hannah’s eyes on her back. If she were Jack she’d kill the woman now, no thought to the consequences. If she were David... but nothing good comes of trying to do what other people would if they were in your place; nobody else goes around imagining what they’d do if they were Michelle. She’s learnt that by now, if she’s learnt nothing else.
She takes a pair of scissors from the pocket on her dress. She took it in the morning from Hannah’s dresser, and now enjoys the way it makes her caretaker gasp. Kidnapper, Jack would have said, but Michelle’s never believe in publish and be damned. Besides, it’s not quite true. Hannah and her family are doing a brutal task as humanely as they can, under orders from Michelle’s mother. Caretaker fits.
She cuts a rose carefully away from the bush. These aren’t the elegant white gladiflora they grow for the Shiloh market, but dark red shrub roses that look practically wild to her eye. It has a stronger smell, but the petals are smaller and not as even. Coming back she gives Hannah the scissors and tucks the rose behind her ear.
Hannah laughs, startled. “Roses for me at my age, miss? My children’d have a laugh. No, here.” She untangles the rose from her grey curls with anxious care, and offers it to Michelle with a sloppy curtsy.
Michelle, who has just begun to see the shape of a new future, takes it and smiles as girlishly as she can. Cutting through her fatigue, she imagines it must make her look more haggard than ever.
But Hannah smiles at her in an oddly maternal way, and reaches up to tuck the rose into the collar of her dress. “There, miss, that’s fitting.”
“It’s been a long time since I had flowers,” she says, blindly feeling out the shape of it.
Hannah clucks at her. “Just so, miss. I’m not saying it isn’t hard, losing your baby. But you’re only young yourself the once, and that man’s been making you grow up too fast. When those photos came out, I thought, why, that’s never our Princess Michelle cavorting around with a soldier, begging your pardon miss.”
“No,” Michelle says, and takes Hannah’s hand between both of hers. It’s trembling. “You’re right. It’s not the end of the world, losing a child. And perhaps I was growing up too early.”
Hannah darts her a wary smile. “I’m sorry, miss, it’s not my place. I’ll go see about dinner, miss, you just come in when you want.”
After she’s gone Michelle allows herself five minutes of sobbing with her mouth buried among the roses. She doesn’t think her eyes are very red, and nobody’s likely to ask her about it anyway, unless it’s to offer some platitude about better out than in. They’ve been on suicide watch for a month and it’s beginning to tell on them.
Michelle doesn’t plan on dying anytime soon; there’s too much that needs to be done first. A year is not so very long.
David slips into Gath like a shadow. The border isn’t even properly militarised, and even if it were he’s a local boy. Nobody knows Port Prosperity the way he does. Nobody alive, at any rate: Eli’d taught him the farms and woods when they were both kids. It seems a thing from a bygone age of the earth, but the terrain hasn’t changed that much.
He doesn’t linger. Some families have left, preferring to stay Gilboans above all else, but his people linger. This is their land bought with blood and all their screaming protests have shrunk down to this dogged resistance. When they have Gathians for neighbours all the old vitriol will rise up again, but everything is quiet now. David knows he should talk to one of his brothers save Ethan, to his mother, simply because he’s going to war and needs to know that someone will be waiting. But they made their choices the same as he made his, and to bring them into this now would be worse than cruel. There’s a place in his new world for cruelty, but he has never had much use for petty selfishness and doesn’t see any reason to start now. He sleeps one night in the barn furthest from the house, takes some of his old fatigues from the trunk in the forebay, and cuts through Mr. Abraham’s woods on his way out.
The woods around Port Prosperity have always been a nightmare to police, and it’s no different now. By rights the place should be swarming with experienced troops, whether because Gath wants to protect its new borders or is looking for a reason to press further in. But David only sees and avoids a single recon detail, boys in fatigues a good few years older than them. The weather is crisp and beautiful, he doesn’t need the fire he cannot afford to light. When he wakes in the morning he is about an hour away from the old border with Gath. As he packs up his few belongings a swarm of monarch butterflies descends on him, more than he’s ever seen before, terrible in their numbers. He walks in a cloud of black and orange, the susurration of a thousand wings like the lick of living fire.
As he steps into Gathian territory proper a single butterfly detaches from the swarm and alights on his hair. God’s grace will go with him into enemy lands. He had known already that he was right to do as he has, but this is proof incontrovertible; he has been charged with the task of bring Gilboa back to her old, true self, every limb intact.
Gath is strange. He has been here before, tightly leashed under Jack’s command hunting through the forests on the King’s instruction and the Premiere’s request. It hadn’t been like this, but then he had been set on a mission, one of a tight knot of men and weapons. His mission now is grander, but there are no men he may call his own, nobody to whom he belongs. He has been cut loose by his family, his country, his King; he is tied only to God, now, and that by the most delicate of filaments: the thickness of a butterfly’s wings. God does not speak in Gath as he does in Gilboa, and David feels his loneliness very deeply. The very air is different here, and different soil grows different plants; the birds are strange, and the rabbits that come up to inspect him have a strange suspicion in their red eyes. It is enough to make older men long for home; David has never been so far from his people.
He would have crawled back to Shiloh if he’d been alone a day longer, but his luck holds; if he had not thought he was going with God, that alone would have convinced him. He avoids patrols for the first two days, and on the morning of the third is caught by a man who comes up to embrace him the moment he is properly cuffed.
He relaxes into the embrace. “Itai.”
“What are you doing here, golden boy? Did the Premiere order more hits on our terrorists?” He turns with a proprietary hand on David to tell his men about their earlier encounter. He tells it well, exaggerating to make David look the hero. The men aim dark looks at David, but nobody trips him onto a land-mine on the way back to their camp, and he’ll take what he can get.
Later, after reports have been made and David has been given the courtesy of having his hands cuffed in front of him, his host hunkers down in front of him with a mug of chai, and under pretext of trickling it down David’s throat, whispers, “You haven’t answered my question, Shephard.” The threat is no less obvious for being issued at a low volume. David is very aware of being unarmed, tied up, and at the mercy of any number of things from bullets to the teeth lightly grazing his right ear.
David struggles back the few inches he can, and says in the voice that used to get him out of trouble after Eli’d got him into it, “I’m here asking for sanctuary. If I go back Silas’ll murder me.”
“Will he now, golden boy?”
“He’s already put his son in house arrest.”
“Way I hear, his son took over his kingdom; house arrest’s pretty mild as these things go. Way I hear, too, you helped him regain his throne, so why’re you wandering around in our forests asking for sanctuary?””
David shrugs. It doesn’t bear thinking about, that strange, terrible night, Silas going madder every minute. “We fell apart. I thought Silas was the true choice for Gilboa, but perhaps I was wrong.”
“Aren’t you the little kingmaker? You thought. Well, David called Shephard, why did you think we in Gath should care about Gilboa falling to pieces?”
“We have a treaty,” David says, “which I helped make, and for which I’ve had to give up my family and land for which my father bled out his life. I’d like to think all of that matters.”
He gets his hair ruffled for his trouble, which makes him feel absurdly young. “Never try to be a politician, kid. They’ll eat you alive. No, don’t get offended, I bet you don’t even know who I am, d’you?”
“I’m afraid I didn’t have access to the internet while running for my life from a psychotic absolute monarch,” David says, which just gets his hair ruffled again. “With due respect. Sir.”
“You mouth off to my uncle like that and we’ll be sending you back to Shiloh all tied up in a nice red ribbon, kid.” He hands David the mug of tepid chai and walks back over to hold a whispered consultation with his XO.
For once in his life, David manages to not mouth off. Months later, Jack will hear and go into wildly exaggerated gestures of gratitude about it till Michelle throws a cushion at him; David will laugh about it endlessly then and in fits and starts for the rest of the day, disrupting various extremely serious meetings.
While he’s talking to the Premiere of Gath, of course, he does not know that any of these things are even remotely likely, and is in fact more terrified than he has ever been of anything in his life that wasn’t a Goliath tank. It keeps him articulate and calm and very, very humble.
“You don’t actually have the authority to negotiate anything,” the Premiere tells him, very kindly. “We can’t accept butterflies as legitimate signs of inheritance, you know. I imagine Silas would have something to say about it.”
When speaking to a superior officer, Eli had told him first week of boot-camp, always keep your eyes up and to the left of him. Up and to the left of the Premiere is a photo of him and Silas finally signing the treaty; David features prominently in the background, flanking Silas. He says, “I understand, sir.”
The Premiere looks around to follow David’s glance, and sighs exasperatedly. “Look, Shephard, the simple fact is, my people are barely beginning to settle in; I don’t want Silas revoking my lease in a hurry or trying to declare war to get back Port Prosperity.”
“You’ve taken the name,” David notes, his facade cracking a little.
“Your fathers died to keep it, and now your king has given it away so that more of their sons needn’t die. I can call a place by its name when speaking to its inhabitants.”
David inclines his head deeply, the sort of gesture that’s pretty meaningless but makes powerful men smile. “Thank you, sir.”
“Hmmm. What for, I wonder. Now, Shephard, I hold you in some affection, and my nephew seems to have taken a liking to you as well. We could do with officers of your mettle on this side of the border too, you know. Stay and fight against Silas.”
He wants Michelle here, or even Jack properly coached not to piss everyone off for his own amusement. “If there was a war to be fought I would, sir. But Gath and Gilboa are at peace, and Silas’ war is against his own people. I’m afraid I cannot stay.”
“Good answer,” the Premiere says. “Sit down.”
David sits, feeling increasingly bewildered. “Sir?”
“Relax, captain, I’m not going to eat you. Now, you have even less right to negotiate for Gilboa than Itai here does for Gath. You can’t enforce anything you promise, and you can’t make me give you anything I do. But I do like you, Shephard, and there may be something you can do for me.”
“Don’t blanch, kid. It’s nobody much, just my father.” Itai grins at him. “Some men need to be killed, and we can’t question whether blood should suffice to turn them loose. I’d do it myself but uncle has other plans for me.”
“What do I get out of it?”
The Premiere awards them both avuncular smiles. “You get to use Port Prosperity as your stronghold provided your men remember that they’re my guests on my land; and at such a time as you decide, you get Itai and six hundred of his men at your service for a month.”
“All of that for a single kill?”
Itai smiles again, far too charming to mean an ounce of it. “Golden boy, it doesn’t matter how many men you kill, it only matters who and how. In or out, kid?”
“I’m in,” David says, and hesitates.
The Premiere smiles and shakes his head. “You want a contract drawn up. Can’t trust these slippery Gathians, gotta pin them down. I can’t think how that’ll do you any good at all if you get caught in Ashkelon with my brother-in-law’s blood on your hands, but yes, you may have a contract.”
“It’s not me I’m thinking of, sir,” he ventures, and flushes an ugly crimson.
“No, I don’t suppose you are. Very well, captain, let us have a contract indeed; I don’t trust Gilboans further than I can throw them, myself, and I can’t imagine I would manage to throw you at all. Itai.”
“Take Captain Shephard and show him the sights. I don’t want either of you back till tomorrow evening at the earliest.”
Ekron doesn’t entirely match up to Shiloh. It isn’t a planned city, which shows, but it is older and kinder than glittering Shiloh, and David feels more at ease roaming its streets with Itai than ever with Jack in any place. He isn’t sure why he keeps thinking of Jack, except that Itai is very like him, only older and less vicious.
“To our success,” Itai says, toasting him in their third pub of the night.
“To success,” David agrees, and drinks. He’s lost count how many he’s had. Enough that he just grins when Itai pulls him into a hug, and leans his weight against him.