“Ah, so they’re here for training. I was wondering why there were so many troops travelling with us from Rhoenglasz,” Gabrielle commented, taking a bite of the yablik – a crisp, pinkish-yellow fruit that tasted like a combination of an apple and a peach and contained three hard seeds.
Aeoulys worked the last seed out of his mouth and grasped it with his fingers. Throwing it into the small garden bed of the restaurant he’d chosen to share with his sister, he wiped his fingers on his breeches and took a sip of water from the blue goblet the female attendant had brought to him with a flirty smile. “You didn’t think all those soldiers were there for you, did you?” he grinned.
“Absolutely,” she replied, taking another bite of the fruit and placing it on the colourful ceramic plate in front of her. She looked at him with a raised eyebrow, challenging him.
“The lady has high hopes,” Aeoulys laughed, thoroughly enjoying his sister’s company. He was glad to still have the airship journey ahead of them; this had been one of the best phoney assignments his father had bestowed upon him in a very long time, and he didn’t like pondering that it was halfway done. Then Gabrielle would be gone for several years, and he’d be all the more lonely for it. “In reality, my skill and authority takes the place of at least twenty-five soldiers…” he motioned as if counting on his fingers, “perhaps, eight lieutenants…and – I’m not certain – four or five generals. So see, you’re lucky I decided to come along. Much more efficient.”
Gabrielle’s head tilted back in laughter, and she put her hand to her mouth to regain some degree of control. She couldn’t remember the last time her stomach muscles hurt from laughing so much. “You’re so full of crap, Yow…God, I love you.” She picked up the cloth napkin and wiped her mouth. Regaining some sobriety, she folded the cloth and draped it across her lap. “I missed home for a few days after I got here, but now I’m just going to miss you when I go to school. You’ve become my best friend.”
He was overwhelmingly flattered by her admission, but his upbringing made him reluctant to voice much sentiment. His grandmother had always used emotional manipulation to hurt him and his mother, so he kept important feelings under lock and key. “I’m merely your best friend by default. I promise, three days in Szkolnieba, and you won’t even remember my name…well, all right: maybe five, or a week at most.”
“Three days,” she replied with a warm and cheeky smile. “And that’s if you’re lucky.”
Their lupine waitress returned with a tray of small, ceramic bowls. She stood close to Aeoulys and ravaged him with her eyes. “Jarus Emparti,” she nearly purred, and turning to Gabrielle, her words morphed into concrete blocks. “My Lady,” she hailed the young woman as if offering a greeting was the most tiresome task on her busy schedule.
“Thank you,” Aeoulys bowed his head politely, sensing his brain turning into soupy custard. He had no interest in her advances, even though he could easily appreciate her lovely figure and delicate features. He’d never been skilled at exchanging seductive banter with pretty females, and he couldn’t think of anything clever to say to her. “We appreciate your attention to our needs.”
She began placing the ceramic bowls on the table, frequently glancing in Aeoulys’s direction. “If you have any other needs that require attention, please don’t hesitate to get my attention.” With lust-laden eyes, she put the tray to her hip and sauntered back into the restaurant.
“Not a word,” he whispered fiercely to his sister, the fur on his neck bristling and his collar feeling very tight about his neck all of a sudden.
“Take it as a compliment,” she replied, clearly amused. He looked upset, and Gabrielle decided to show a little mercy by ignoring the incident. “This looks very tasty,” she commented, surveying the little bowls.
“Although it’s tradition down in this region to have a large meal in the morning,” he explained, clearing his throat and jumping on the opportunity to change the topic, “the rest of the day, they eat bits and pieces. This offering is just a series of small savouries called entzakiek, which means something like ‘snack’ or ‘light meal’. There’s often one more round of this in a few hours just before bed and then it’s usually served with alcohol.”
“Fair enough,” Gabrielle commented, picking up her spoon and tasting a little from each of the bowls before her. “Very nice…like tapas.” She noticed her brother’s questioning expression and explained, “Something similar from back home. My uncle took us to a great Spanish restaurant one year for my mom’s birthday. Tapas are a bunch of small appetisers.”
“I see…something in common.” He smiled as he took a deep breath of the late afternoon air and looked up at the sky. The bright blue of the afternoon was beginning to fade, and wispy clouds in the west started to take on a warm, pinkish hue. The air temperature was quite warm compared to Rhoenglasz, which helped accentuate the many spicy food smells and the salty-sweet ocean breeze perfuming the air. He tore a piece of bread from one of the tiny loaves on the plate in the centre of the table and closed his eyes, savouring the peace of late afternoon.
“Aeoulys.” Gabrielle’s tense voice stabbed into his peace like an ice pick.
He opened his eyes and looked at his sister. She pointed over his shoulder, and he turned to see Lieutenant Garzyk and two other soldiers riding down the street with a saddled Resky in tow. Following up the back was young Tashnik on his own, smaller szukar. Aeoulys stood up and turned to face them just as they pulled up near the restaurant. “What is it?”
Garzyk jumped out of the saddle and strode over to Aeoulys’s side, whispering in Sykkhonian, “We’ve just had news that Lordane and his bunch are causing a disturbance at a nearby estate. Lord Hesgryn sent word for us to come immediately.”
Aeoulys clenched his fists and gritted his teeth. “By the gods,” he hissed. “I was hoping he wouldn’t double back, but…”
Garzyk frowned. “I think he heard we were going to be here. His activity is a deliberate attempt to get your attention.”
“Well,” Aeoulys grimaced, his eyebrows drawn fiercely together and his upper lip lifting to expose gleaming canines, “he’s got it.” He tried to relax the fury seething under his skin as he stepped to his sister’s side.
“What’s happened?” she asked. Even though she hadn’t understood a single word of their exchange, she could read their behaviour. Tight shoulders, strained necks, hushed words exchanged in agitated tones…none of it put her at ease. “What are you doing?”
“My duty,” he leaned in close. “There’s been an incident, and my presence is required. I want you to finish up quickly and go back to the inn.”
“But – ” Gabrielle’s stomach lurched nervously, and she put her hand on her brother’s arm.
“Master Tashnik!” Aeoulys called. Tashnik quickly jumped off his animal and approached the Imperator General. “I want you to ensure Lady Gabrielle returns to her quarters safely. When you arrive at the inn, tell one of the sergeants that I’ve ordered a heightened detail…they’ll know what to do. And you,” he turned his attention back to his sister. “I want you on that airship tomorrow, with or without me.”
“Without you?” Gabrielle’s eyes widened as a great hand constricted her chest. “But you’re supposed to – ”
“Chances are this is nothing and I’ll be back before the southern star appears on the horizon. But if I’m not there tomorrow, you are not to miss that flight for any reason whatsoever. Your safety could depend on it. Do you understand, Lady Szapiorus?”
He was no longer her brother; he was the Imperator General: a logical, ruthless soldier entrusted with a mission he refused to fail. She wanted to hug him, but the male standing in front of her wouldn’t appreciate that gesture. She straightened her shoulders and bit her lip, steadied her nerves, and bowed her head in acquiescence. “As you request, Jarus Emparti.”
He brushed his fingers across her cheek – the only gentle expression he allowed himself – and picked up his coat from the back of his chair. Slipping into his duster while hurrying to Resky’s side, he found his weapon belt wrapped around the pikra. With grace borne of much experience, he fastened his sword and pistol about his waist and pulled himself up onto the creature’s back. He flashed the young woman a final, piercing glance and ordered Resky into a full bolt.
“Be safe,” Gabrielle whispered, knowing he hadn’t heard. Nevertheless, she hoped her intention could – like a magic spell – offer him some protection.