Fifteen Years Ago
“I’m not tired,” Riona said, climbing hurriedly to her feet. “I want to go outside with that lady and see the workers.”
Fingal smiled. “Maybe later. Nap time.”
“Oh yes,” Nora quickly agreed, appraising Riona. “Your pretty eyes need a rest. I want you awake tonight so everyone can meet you then. You want to attend the party, right?”
Riona bunched her lips in protest. “I don’t like parties.”
“Oh,” Nora said, in mock offence, grinning widely, the spat with Donnoch and his family put to rest—for now.
“All right.” Fingal swooped in before the girl could raise any more suspicion. Personally, he agreed with Riona. Large gatherings in small spaces made him uncomfortable. He wasn’t looking forward to spending copious amounts of time with Captain Stovel and his men, either.
“Iris. You are definitely sleepy.” He gave her a look. He wasn’t sure if she could understand sarcasm, or non-verbal cues. Her gaze narrowed in confusion as he scooped her off the floor and carried her up the stairs.
She squirmed. “I’m not sleepy.”
“Yes, you are,” he told her definitively. “Children your age need naps.”
“You don’t even know how old I–”
“Shh,” he said, now at the top of the stairs. Nora, Donnoch, and Brendan were watching him closely. Fingal didn’t know what to do with children. He could tell Nora wanted to relieve him of his self-imposed responsibility, despite her reunion with Connor.
“The room to the left should be free,” Donnoch called up.
“Right.” He gave them a little salute and quickly ushered Riona down the short corridor. There were two rooms and both doors were closed. One to their left and the other to their right. Behind him, the hallway continued to another room, presumably belonging to Donnoch’s parents. Only three bedrooms in the house? Brendan and Fingal and the girl would have to share, and while he didn’t mind his friend’s company, he wasn’t thrilled with the idea of putting Riona at risk.
Just one night, he told himself. Then, perhaps he could slip away.
He opened the door to the guest room Donnoch had indicated, to their left, and Riona stepped reluctantly inside. The warmth from the chimney made the room cozy and warm. A double bed faced the window, which looked out over the brown stretch of grass. If Fingal squinted, he could see the assortment of tents that comprised the Ashdown market. The dirt road continued east, and as he strained to see further, he thought he could make out another large house, not too far from here. A dusty dresser, as tall as he was, stood sentry on the wall, and that was the entirety of the sparse room. Perhaps a bit too close to the goings-on downstairs, but suitable for him and the girl and perhaps Brendan for the night.
“I don’t like this room,” she said matter-of-factly, wrinkling her nose.
“Not as nice as the ones at the castle?” he asked dryly.
“No.” She touched the bedspread. Rough cotton, dark and worn. Her skin looked far too sickly purple next to the hue. Perhaps he needed to add gloves to the growing list of items to buy for the child.
“Well, you’re probably never going to have anything as nice ever again.” He put his hands on his hips, hoping to look authoritative. The earlier she realized she wasn’t a princess, the better. Maybe she’d forget about her mother—if she could forget anything with that fae mind of hers—and settle for a life among the lowly peasants.
Not to be outdone, Riona put her hands on her hips and jutted her pointed chin at him. “When Mama comes for me, she’s going to take me back home. She’s going to give me dresses and pearls and we are going to sing songs about–”
Her words died as the bedroom door swung open. Brendan glanced between the two of them squaring off, and then grinned slyly. “Someone’s still resisting a nap, I see.”
Riona pursed her lips and pouted at Brendan.
“You want some help?” Brendan asked Fingal. “I just did a decent rendition of A Wood Thrush Sings for Connor. He’s just down the hall. Remember that lullaby? Used to put the little ones at Mother Zepline’s right to sleep.”
“I’m not sure if she likes lullabies,” Fingal replied honestly.
Riona crossed her arms impatiently, her eyes saying no to a song, especially one sang by either of them. Brendan mirrored her, crossing his arms in an exaggerated fashion, pouting his face in an attempt to make her laugh. She responded with a disgusted frown.
Fingal wasn’t sure how long this would go on. The longer his friends remained in Riona’s presence, the higher the likelihood they’d discover her wings. “Go lie down in bed.”
“Not. Sleepy,” she said through gritted teeth.
“Don’t. Care,” he replied, with equal measure.
Grumbling, she held his stare, and the sweet smell of flowers filled the room. What was that? Not an iris—no, a rose. He glanced about the room. There were no fresh flowers anywhere.
“Do you…?” Fingal began, though Brendan frowned.
And just like that, the scent was gone, and Riona was climbing up, with some difficulty, onto the bed. Fingal instinctively lifted her under the arms, helping her up. She was hot and sticky, and the scent was suddenly all around him.
Only magic had such a strong, inherent scent. What had she done?
She gave him a smug look. Whatever it was, she wasn’t telling him. Brendan was still next to him; Fingal felt fine himself. Her eyelids fluttered as she turned her head away from the two of them.
It was probably an act. She wouldn’t fall asleep that quickly. Unless she’d cast some kind of sleepy magic on herself, which given what he’d experienced on their long journey together already, seemed unlikely.
“Nora would take her in a heartbeat,” Brendan said to Fingal in a low voice.
“Iris said she doesn’t want Nora,” Fingal replied.
Riona didn’t move, though Fingal knew she was listening.
Brendan sniffed. “No, but she’s how old? She doesn’t get to decide those kinds of things. She’s probably the daughter of a noble for all we know, with the way she babbles on. You said her family was supposed to be in Cantlyn, right? We didn’t try that hard to find them.”
Fingal felt cold. He didn’t want to have this conversation, especially not in front of the girl. He took his friend by the arm and gestured to the door. “Let’s continue this out there.”
Brendan seemed to consider leaving, yet without rebuking Fingal, he didn’t budge from his spot. Riona hadn’t taken off her cloak; she lay on her back on top of the blankets.
“Iris,” Brendan said, as if he were speaking to an adult and not a child, “Where is your mother?”
She turned her head to face him, her eyes wide and fully curious as she carefully considered the answer. There was no way she’d sleep now. “Dead.”
“Really,” he said dryly.
“Brendan.” Fingal’s grip on his friend tightened.
“And your father? Your papa?” Brendan continued.
Riona blinked. “Don’t have one.”
Brendan was becoming frustrated. “Everyone has one.”
“No, they don’t,” Fingal said quietly.
Brendan’s gaze fell awkwardly to the floor as he wrenched himself from Fingal’s grip. “Sorry. You’re right. But I thought you said she said–”
“It’s okay,” Riona replied, before Fingal could say anything, and she turned her gaze to the ceiling. “Can I nap now?”
“Yeah,” Brendan said distantly. He considered her carefully for one last time, and then shuffled towards the door.
Fingal shot Riona a go-to-sleep look. She stuck out her tongue at him.
Once Fingal firmly pulled the bedroom door shut, he felt better. No one would bother her if they believed she was napping. He just needed to come up with an excuse to keep her in there, away from everyone else, until he could come up with a real plan.
Brendan’s voice was conspiratorial. “Don’t you want to at least try to find her real family? What if they’re out there, searching?”
Fingal sincerely hoped that wasn’t the case. “We have nothing to go on. The girl’s mother is dead and she’s unsure about her father. How many anxious parents would claim her, falsely, just to replace a lost child? I can’t let that happen.”
“No, you’re right,” Brendan said uncertainly. “This is just…not what I expected.”
“Yeah.” Below them, the kitchen was empty. He heard Nora and Donnoch speaking in low whispers in the larger bedroom at the end of the hallway. Outside, the distant sounds of Donnoch’s parents and the workers. Brendan and Fingal were alone. Briefly.
Fingal had thought he was the only one uncomfortable with this homecoming, and yet he hadn’t considered Brendan’s feelings at all. His sister was married and had already given birth to her first child. Now, Fingal had taken on this guardianship. Everyone had children, except him. Brendan had plans and dreams, and children sometimes complicated such things.
Yet before Fingal could assure Brendan, Brendan shifted the subject completely. “I noticed you didn’t take to the good captain.”
“What do you mean?” Fingal asked.
Brendan shrugged. “He’s a friend of Nora’s. You’re not afraid of him, are you?”
“No,” Fingal said.
Brendan cracked a smile and slapped a hand down on Fingal’s shoulder. He had known Fingal long enough to recognize when discomfort distorted his features. “The Imperial Guards aren’t our enemies anymore. Do I get uncomfortable when I see the uniform? Yeah. Do I think they’re going to arrest us for waging our own war against the fae? Yeah. Sometimes. All that is done now. The war is done. We won. We showed humans and fae that a couple of scrappy orphans, banded together, can make a difference. Now we can do that in a different way. Right?”
“Some Imperials put me in Mother Zepline’s,” Fingal muttered. “They didn’t know what to do with me. For all of their shining armour and sharpened blades, they did nothing.”
“They didn’t make it in time to save our parents either,” Brendan said quietly.
Fingal couldn’t say much to that. The fae had brutally murdered Brendan and Nora’s parents, and days later, they had been placed at Mother Zepline’s. Orphans at Mother Zepline’s were taken care of. Imperials didn’t give much sympathy to orphans fending for themselves in the anonymous squalor of the capital. Fingal knew—as it had taken the Imperials years to catch him.
Brendan shook him gently, and the memories of his dreary childhood lifted temporarily, like dust flying into the air. “Remember what I said. We can talk about the nightmares anytime. Even here. Tonight, after the celebration?”
“During the celebration?” Fingal countered.
Brendan put his arm around Fingal jovially and guided them towards the stairs. He was quick to dismiss the past, like outgrown clothing. “Oh, no. You’re not going to hide. Not while I’m around to put a drink in your hand, a smile on your face, and who knows? You might even meet someone, here in this very house! You’ll see.” His smile was infectious, and his eyes, sparkling with opportunity. “I feel the gods telling me, this is the beginning of something great.”
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