Sanbralio rarely remembered who they were. When he wasn’t doting on Nita and trying to charm her, he spent most of his time throwing nasty out comments about Andreno, or bemoaning his losses. More often than not, he ended the meal by breaking down into tearful sobbing. “You don’t have to look as if you just swallowed something slimy.” Nita giggled at Jerryck. “We only have a couple more days here. Then you won’t have to deal with him anymore. Go get ready. Then meet me in my room.” Jerryck went. He took his time putting on something appropriate for dining with royalty. He never had figured out why people wore different clothes to court than to meals, but for now it made a good excuse for procrastination. Then he dragged his feet the short distance to Nita’s room. When he entered, a hairdresser was taking mounds of Nita’s hair down from where it had been piled on top of her head. “I’d think you’d have figured it out by now.” Nita sat in front of her vanity, arms crossed, scolding the hairdresser. “I don’t care about the latest fashion. I refuse to show myself in public with hair so high I have to duck to go through doorways that aren’t vaulted.” Jerryck dropped into a chair to wait. It only took a couple minutes for the hairdresser to come up with something different. Nita scrutinized her reflection and nodded her approval. The hairdresser left and Nita opened her jewelry box. Her reflection frowned at Tajor. “You look amused,” she said. “Whims of fashion are fickle and every-changing,” Tajor leaned casually against the wall next to Deek. “Did you notice that when you first arrived, not one noble woman showed herself in public without her hair standing a foot higher than the top of her head?” “A stupid way to wear your hair.” Nita put on a pair of ruby earrings. “I kept watching to see if they’d fall over sideways.” “Now several of them are wearing their hair more like yours.” “Which means there are some women here that have brains.” Nita latched a gold locket around her neck. “Do you have any advice before we go to Prince Sanbralio?” Tajor smirked. “When do I ever give advice?” Jerryck rolled his eyes. Why did Nita play this game of questions with Tajor? Why would anyone willingly put themselves through that kind of misery? “I know you usually give riddles and make me figure things out on my own, but…” Nita turned from her vanity to look at him directly. “I don’t have time for that right now. You always have something in mind. Tell me. Please?” Tajor dropped the smirk and stood straight. “Don’t get your hopes up.” She stood. “That wasn’t what I expected.” “What was your true intention for requesting this luncheon?” “I’m going to ask Prince Sanbralio to let me take Charlass to Brend,” Nita said. She slowly paced, circling the furniture. “Don’t get your hopes up.” “Why?” “Exactly.” Tajor spread his hands apart. “Why is she here? Why did he take her in?” Nita stopped pacing. “She’s his granddaughter.” “She’s illegitimate,” Tajor said. That set Nita to motion again. When she said nothing, he continued, “In the eyes of every noble in this country, her very existence is an affront and an embarrassment. In a land where image is everything, and nobles have had their reputations smeared just for association with a commoner, why would the greatest noble of them all take a commoner into his household?” “She’s his granddaughter,” Nita repeated, passing by the vanity. “Surely that counts for something.” “It counts for everything. And nothing. It’s the very reason she’s here. It’s the very reason he neglects her.” “Should I point out his neglect? Use that to say she’d be happier in Brend?” “He won’t understand,” Tajor said. “Here in Shontarra, commoners live in misery. She lives in a palace. They dress in filthy rags. She adorns herself with jewels. They eat scraps and crumbs they’ve fought for. She dines at the table of the prince.” “A woman needs friends,” Nita said, clenching her fists. “A need most men don’t comprehend very well,” Tajor replied. “Men need friends too!” “Not the same way, and not for the same function. Their attachment is just as strong and deep, yes, but it stems from a different facet of humanity. Sanbralio is blind and deaf to this need in her.” “I could tell him.” “How loud would you have to shout for a deaf person to hear you?” Tajor asked. “How bright does a light have to shine before a blind person can see it?” “Jerryck,” Nita turned to him. “How do your sister and wife get you to understand things. Help me out here.” “Uh…” Jerryck fumbled for words. “I’d rather stay out of this.” “But…” “They usually just get mad at me,” Jerryck said. “I can’t help you. I’m sorry if that upsets you, but I really don’t understand half of what they get mad at me for. Especially if they try and explain it.” Nita huffed and clucked her tongue, stomping out of her room, “Fine, I’ll figure it out myself.” She wouldn’t look at either Tajor or Jerryck the entire way to the dining hall. At the luncheon, the old prince ignored his food, as usual. He put his chin in his hand, propped his elbow on the table, and stared blankly at Nita’s face. All the while she talked about how much companionship and friends meant to a woman. Several times, she mentioned Charlass. He never reacted. Finally, at the end of the meal, she set her fork down and said, “When I go back home, may I take Charlass with me?” “Charlass? Why would you want that?” Sanbralio sat back in his chair with a frown. “I thought you were a noble. Yes, I’m sure I was told you’re a noble. You came to bring condolences from your father. Is this your father?” He pointed to Jerryck. Before anyone could correct him, he shook his head. “No, no, you can’t be her father. You’re that magician I made Andreno do that favor to Masorno for.” “What favor?” Jerryck asked. “Doesn’t matter.” Sanbralio slumped. “I don’t really remember anyway. What was the question again?” “Charlass,” Nita said. “Oh, yes, Charlass.” Sanbralio picked at a loose thread on his napkin. “I doubt your father would want you associating with someone like her. What district is he premiere of again?” “My father is Terrence, King of Brend.” Sanbralio looked up at her. “Oh, that’s right. You’re the Brendish princess. Then absolutely not. I’ll not sully the Brendish King’s home. She is my own personal shame. She stays here.” Nita spared everyone her raging rant until she was back in the privacy of her room. Jerryck considered leaving, giving her more room to pace and throw things around. But then Masorno would hear he was available. He stayed where he was, tuned out the rant, and sent someone to fetch him a book. # The next day, Jerryck used the excuse that he needed to pack. It got him out of attending court in the morning. And it got him out of the socializing afterward. Not that he did any of the actual packing. Every time he tried, the servant assigned to him just about had a silent, apoplectic fit, wincing and gasping, wringing his hands, glancing nervously around the room before snagging at the nearest thing he could pack before Jerryck could touch it. When Alysses arrived for lunch, it was Garret who let him in and announced him. He came alone, and beamed so broadly Jerryck could see his back molars. He said, “Thank you so much for this invitation.” “Glad you could come.” Jerryck used a polite response. The servant left off packing long enough to quickly and silently set out a meal that he had stashed away somewhere. It was the normal amount Jerryck had been given for every meal since arriving at the Shontese palace, far more than he was accustomed to eating. “You barely caught me,” Alysses said, seemingly oblivious to the servant dashing about the room. “I stayed around in the city, even though Masorno swore you wouldn’t see me again since I came out of turn. When I heard you were leaving tomorrow, I thought maybe he was right. I told my nephew and my apprentice to go ahead and pack up.” “I wanted to talk to you again,” Jerryck said. They sat down to the meal and the servant silently went back to packing. Alysses dug right in to the food, talking with his mouth full. “I assume none of the boys Masorno introduced were suitable for your needs?” “Not really,” Jerryck said. He looked over at Garret. The guard was the man who should be making this conversation. He was the one who had given suggestions for how to steer the talking. As it was, Jerryck made his first inept attempt to turn the subject in the direction they needed it to go. “I didn’t really expect to find any with Masorno. This was just my first try at looking outside my country.” “Did Masorno bring in more than one boy at a time and get them bickering and fighting for his own amusement?” Somehow, Alysses was able to keep his words clear and intelligible even while chewing. “He did, actually,” Jerryck said. “As much as I respect the Shontese court magician and his skills, I think his ego holds him back.” Alysses shook his head, swallowed, and took another bite. “That’s why I’ve done everything I can to teach my nephew and my apprentice to keep their ego in check.” “Know anyone else with an ego that’s too large?” Jerryck made a second attempt at steering the conversation. Whoever would poison an entire river had to have a very large ego. Alysses swallowed again, this time without taking a replacement bite. He stared down at his plate. “I probably shouldn’t say it.” “Please, say it.” If Alysses was going to name someone Jerryck hadn’t heard of, that would be perfect. “You have to have a rather large ego yourself.” Alysses glanced up at Jerryck. “Or you wouldn’t have gone this long without a license. I’m glad to hear that you’re finally humbling yourself properly.” Jerryck leaned back in his chair with a frown. “What do you mean?” “Surely you wouldn’t be seeking an apprentice if you didn’t have plans to get your license.” Alysses looked him square in the eye. “Because if you don’t, I won’t allow you to take my nephew, no matter how good you are at pleasing your employer.” Now Jerryck was utterly confused. “Your nephew?” The door burst open. Garret jumped between it and Jerryck. It was just Masorno, so Jerryck told him, “It’s all right.” He started to rise to give a more proper greeting when Masorno put his hands on his hips and glared. “So it is true.” Jerryck stopped halfway to his feet. “What’s true?” “I ate by myself, because I thought you were packing,” Masorno said. “Until someone told me you had a guest. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think you would do that to me. Yet here you are.” “Here I am,” Jerryck repeated. “Doing what, exactly?” “My last chance to share a meal with you privately.” Masorno pointed at Alysses. “You’re giving it to someone else.” Jerryck leaned on his hands on the table and hung his head, trying to figure out which social blunder he had committed this time. “No one told me I had to spend every lunch with you.” “Not every lunch,” Masorno said. “You didn’t have to. But this is the last one!” “That makes a difference?” Jerryck asked. Masorno made a wry face. “If I didn’t know you so well, I’d think you were mocking me.” Jerryck threw his hands up in the air. “I have no idea why you would think that from what I said.” “I know you don’t,” Masorno said. “No more than you understand how important it is for you to get your license.” “Please don’t start that.” Jerryck turned away. Everyone else in the room was looking elsewhere. The servant had his head bent over Jerryck’s luggage. Garret kept his gaze fixed on Masorno. Alysses was staring at his plate again. The only one watching him was Masorno. “He’s getting his license soon,” Alysses spoke quietly, almost a mumble. “He told you that?” Masorno’s face darkened with anger. He frowned at Jerryck. “You’ll get a license after talking to him once, and not after all these times I’ve tried to help you along the process and offered to finish out that mentorship for you?” “I don’t need you for a mentor!” Jerryck nearly exploded. “I’m not getting my license! Ever!” Alysses snapped his gazed to Jerryck. “What do you mean you’re not getting your license ever?” “I don’t need it,” Jerryck said. “You do if you want my nephew.” Alysses rose to his feet too. “Unless you thought you could steal him by deceiving me.” “Why do you keep mentioning your nephew?” Jerryck asked. “What does he have to do with any of this?” “He has everything to do with all of this if you want to apprentice him,” Alysses said. Jerryck shook his head, trying to sort his way through all this confusion. “I never said anything about apprenticing him.” Alysses stiffened up, throwing his shoulders back. “You didn’t have to. Why else would you invite me here?” Jerryck looked over to Garret, wishing he could pick up on visual cues better, just in case the guard was giving any. Was he supposed to just come out and say that they wanted information on the foreigner he had referenced? Were they supposed to string him along and deny it? And now that Masorno was there, what was Jerryck supposed to do about that? Ask him to leave? “You can’t tell him to throw us out,” Masorno said, pointing to Garret with his chin. “Not here.” “I wasn’t going to,” Jerryck said. “They why are you looking at him as if you expect something?” Masorno asked. “Are you hoping he’ll help you steal my nephew?” Alysses headed for the door. “Good thing I didn’t bring him. Let’s see how your precious elite guards help you when I report to the Gathering what you just tried to do to me.” “You think you’re the only magician who’s complained to them about me?” Jerryck rolled his eyes. “You may need to wait in line to submit your grievance.” Alysses paused at the door just long enough to speak over his shoulder. “If enough of us point out how wild and uncontrolled you are, the kind of damage you’re causing, maybe they might do the right thing and force a leash on you.” He slammed the door on his way out. Masorno shook his head. “You can’t keep this up forever, Jerryck. There’s a reason they take their time before they take action. They’re very strategic that way. Eventually, they’re going to find something that hurts you so bad you’ll have no other choice.” “There’s always a choice,” Jerryck said. “I’m sure you think so,” Masorno said. “When you learn otherwise, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Perhaps we can discuss it more when next I come visit you.” With that, he left. Jerryck slouched in his seat. What an abysmal failure this trip was. They had dug out no information. He had agitated the magicians in Shontarra. And now Masorno felt free to return to Coraline Palace and pester Jerryck into getting a license. Worse than a failure.