Kerrick only noticed because he'd been watching, because he was a Defender, and Morgan would always be the most dangerous person in any room.
Morgan had also saved Antonya's life often enough for Kerrick to have come to accept him as a necessary evil - but the emphasis would always be on 'evil'. It didn't matter that the more Kerrick had learned of the Assassin's guild, the better he understood why Morgan had turned into the person he was today.
It did matter that Antonya had outlawed several of the more ... extreme training practices, after allowing herself to be convinced not to outlaw the guild outright - a measure Kerrick himself might have favored whole-heartedly, if not for the bitter truth that as long as there were those willing to pay for a killer, there would be those offering to take human lives in exchange for money.
At least the more recent crop of trained assassins killed for gold, though, rather than for pleasure.
At least none of them had looked at Kerrick the way Morgan had, hungering to kill in a way in the way something from the Weird might, something inhuman and monstrous.
Of course, it might simply be that the guild had trained them to be better at hiding their true nature.
"Defender," Morgan said, his face a mask of bland politeness as held out one of the cups of ale he'd just poured.
There had been three in total: one for Antonya, one for Kerrick, and one for Morgan himself. Morgan had taken a sip of Antonya's, as was his habit. Kerrick approved, even though he knew Antonya didn't. If it came down to a choice between Morgan's life and Antonya's, Kerrick would always choose Antonya.
It was one of the very few things he and Morgan agreed on.
"You - " Kerrick said, because he didn't know how to ask. "The other cup. Please."
Morgan arched an eyebrow, his expression vaguely amused. Kerrick suspected it was the 'please'.
"Why?" Antonya's voice sounded too sharp. Kerrick swallowed. These past months had not been kind to his lady. Her rule still held, but the glow of the first days was wearing off. People were beginning to wonder what they were going to eat, come winter, and who would pay to rebuild their homes.
"Ale is ale. Does it matter?" Kerrick almost wished now that he'd kept his mouth shut.
"Clearly, it matters to you," Antonya said. "Well?"
Morgan kept silent. Kerrick wondered if it amused him to see Antonya lose her temper with Kerrick.
"He - " Honesty had always been Kerrick's preferred strategy. Lies and secrets had a nasty habit of coming out sooner or later - except, it seemed, the secret of Antonya's true parentage. "He tasted it. I saw him."
Antonya made a sound. It took Kerrick a few moments to realize she was laughing. There was a slight hysterical edge to it he disliked, but then, it had been a long time since he'd heard her laugh, since there had been anything for her to laugh about.
Morgan's face showed a hint of smugness and he inclined his head just a fraction, as if to say, 'you're welcome'. Kerrick scowled.
"Take the damn cup, Kerrick, and let's get back to something that's actually important," Antonya said.
Morgan supposed he might tell Kerrick not to worry about the many marriage proposals Antonya had received already, and would no doubt continue to receive as long as she remained unwed.
On the other hand, he had no real reason to, and Kerrick was more entertaining annoyed and insecure, than calm and prone to prodding at things he had no business prodding at.
"Who does that bastard think he is?" Kerrick muttered.
Antonya had taken a leaf from Lord Vodos's book and requested she be left alone with her most recent 'suitor'. Kerrick hadn't liked it, which was fair enough; Morgan hadn't liked it either, for all that Antonya was capable enough of defending herself and of calling for help if she needed it.
"Not a bastard, one assumes," Morgan said, vainly trying to find a place where he might listen in on Antonya and her would-be suitor. Kerrick's conversation was unlikely to become any more engaging that it was at present, and he did not quite trust Antonya to share all details with him, after.
Such small details as death threats seemed to occasionally slip her mind.
Kerrick scowled, turning his already ugly face into a true visage of horror. Not that Morgan had ever allowed himself to be affected by Kerrick's looks, but in his idle moments, he indulged in speculating on the effect of Kerrick on Antonya's visitors.
Also, it had to be admitted that Kerrick's striking looks helped Morgan stay unnoticed nearly as much as his own behavior did.
"Bastard," Kerrick repeated.
Morgan toyed with the idea of discovering what had gotten Kerrick's back up. He did not truly care, however, and getting Kerrick to share any information he did not wish to share could be a rather tedious business, as likely to end in failure and frustration as not.
Far easier to go straight to the source, Morgan judged. Antonya ought to be in a permissive mood after this. Perhaps she might even grant him permission to kill the man, though that would take a great deal of offensive behavior indeed.
Or, perhaps, a persuasive voice to add to his own. "Would you like me to kill him for you?"
Kerrick stared, then said, "No," in a voice that lacked somewhat in conviction.
Morgan abandoned his search for a good listening spot. There likely wasn't one, anyway; if there were, he'd have found and closed it off himself long ago. "You're a poor liar, Defender."
"I'll take that as a compliment," Kerrick said, with rather more conviction.
"Our lady need never know," Morgan said. He felt a rush of something almost sexual at the idea of killing this man - not for Antonya, but for Kerrick. "I could make it look like an accident. It would be easy."
"I said no." Kerrick looked ill.
Morgan smiled. "As you wish. Remember, I offered. If ever you change your mind, you know where to find me."
"Bastard," Kerrick muttered, his expression returning to a familiar scowl, and Morgan almost asked, Me or him? except that he already knew the answer to that question.
After the long hours spent discussing the new taxes, Antonya luxuriated in the blessed silence as much as in the hot water of the bathing tub, the momentary freedom of affairs of state.
She had indulged herself by insisting she was perfectly able to wash her own back, thank you very much, leaving her alone save for her ever-faithful shadow.
Or, well, one of the two, anyway - but Kerrick had claimed he wished to recheck the guards' schedule, ensure the castle was as proofed against intruders as it could reasonably be, and so it was only Morgan here to keep her safe in case she got soap into her eyes or fell asleep in the tub.
She had to admit, the latter did not sound wholly unlikely. She knew what she wanted her tax system to do, who she wanted to be made to pay, and who she wanted to spare - and yet the very people who should be advising her on the best way to accomplish this were the same people who seemed to be fighting her every step of the way.
Worse: they were doing it by long lectures and longer calculations, meaning she could not even make use of Kerrick to beat them up.
She supposed she might send Morgan to frighten some of them a little, just enough to become a bit more cooperative, but - no. She would not rule by fear. Such tactics might have a place in war, but these men would serve her long after this, and she needed them to serve her willingly.
All it would take was for one of them to see her point, to accept her vision. The others would follow, taking the word of a friend where they refused to take the word of their ruler.
Speaking of friends.
"I worry for you," Antonya said, half-expecting Morgan to step back - either verbally or physically.
He offered her a small smile and a bow instead. "I'm not the one who survived six assassination attempts in the past year, my lady. Based on that fact, I'd say your worry is misplaced. If kindly intended."
"I'm not a kind person." She couldn't afford to. Most days, she considered herself lucky if she could afford things like mercy, decency. "Still, that doesn't mean I don't have friends, people I care about. People who care about me in turn." Not that Kerrick seemed any more ready to accept the position of her consort now than he had two, three years ago. Where did time go?
Morgan said nothing. She wondered if he was worried that she would ask him again to be her friend.
She wondered if he still didn't know that he already was, that words mattered a great deal less in these matters than deeds, actions. Unlike, alas, in the matter of taxes, though I'd happily spend three more weeks like today if it meant I would get the tax reform I wanted in the end.
"Who do you have, Morgan?" If he had ever had a lover since joining her, she would have heard about it. Before - well, that was Morgan's business. She did not intend to pry.
"I have enough to satisfy me." Morgan's eyes gleamed in some private amusement. "Will that satisfy you, my lady, or need I acquire written proof?"
For a moment, Antonya was tempted to say 'yes', if for no other reason than she was curious what Morgan would bring her. It might be an amusing distraction - and God knew she could do with one of those. "As long as you're happy, that's good enough for me."
"I'm happy to hear it," Morgan said. "Shall I go find Kerrick to tell him you'd like him to wash your back?"
He was still more than capable of slipping past a couple of guards, grown lazy and complacent after the many years of peace - which wouldn't save them from a tongue-lashing if their captain were to find out, but then, such things were no longer his concern.
Perhaps, he speculated, the guards were not the only ones grown lazy and complacent. He did not view himself as either, but these past months, he'd been forced to face up to the hard but inescapable truth that sooner or later, all men grew old.
He, too, was not the man he had been years ago. He had kept himself in shape, and he knew himself still capable of handling several opponents, of doing things that would be beyond most other men half his age, and yet here it was: he was no longer young. No longer useful.
He could not stay, and let himself become a burden. He had looked at himself in the mirror in his private room, and he had thought to himself, This is beyond me.
He'd come close to smashing the thing in a fit of misplaced anger. It had only shown him the truth he already knew, after all.
And so he had taken what few belongings he valued, hesitating rather longer than he felt he'd ought to over the gift he had once given the one person he thought he might trust with his heart.
But then, everyone made mistakes, and at least his had, however inadvertently, brought him some rather good fortune in the end, which was more than he'd let himself hope for - or rather, more than he'd have let himself hope for, had he been capable of feeling such a thing as hope.
He reached the stables without incident, saddling a horse he knew would be missed, but too late to do him any harm. At this time of night, the gates would be guarded, but open. He would be questioned, but believed if claiming to be leaving on official business. The guards would know his face. They might report seeing him at the end of their shift, five hours from now, which ought to be enough time for him to get away clean.
Nobody will come after me, he tried to tell himself. If anything, they'll be glad I'm gone.
Something moved behind him - a guard looking for a comfortable place to take a nap, perhaps.
He forced himself to keep quiet. There was a throwing knife in his sleeve; it would be a matter of seconds to feel it in his hand, then to turn and throw, striking true. The guard would be dead before he (or she, though female guards were still a rarity) would even be able to cry out.
"Morgan," someone said, and he felt -
He turned. They had both come, he saw: Antonya, silver-streaked hair disheveled, as if someone (Kerrick, obviously) had dragged her out of bed to come here, to be here.
"Desertion's a serious offense," Kerrick said.
Morgan scoffed. "I'm not deserting. I'm just - " leaving.
"Old." Kerrick grinned, as if this was funny, as if Morgan's inability to fulfill the task he had dedicated his life was nothing more than a joke to him.
Antonya sighed. "If you truly want to leave my service, you may do so with my blessing. God knows you've earned it. But, Morgan, if you don't want to leave, if you're just doing this because you're, I don't know - " She made a frustrated gesture.
"Stupid," Kerrick supplied. "A fool. An idiot."
Morgan swallowed. Kerrick, he could deal with. Kerrick, he'd always been able to deal with, even while knowing Kerrick knew things about him no one else did.
Antonya, on the other hand - this isn't fair.
He tried not to shiver as she stepped forward and put her arms around him. Kerrick hesitated one, two seconds before joining her.