Jayen sat down at the bar at Dacie’s. He was angry, and everyone in the place knew it. It was full of Malthusius bonded and affiliates, and sensing the fury radiating out through his patchy internal shields, they gave him a wide berth. Except for the proprietress, who was running the bar herself today.
“Shot of my usual,” Jayen said as she sidled up to greet him.
She gave him a stern look, planting her hands on her hips. She was a round, buxom woman of forty-odd years who looked agreeable and unassuming, but as a retired veteran of Malthusius security, she was fully capable of breaking skulls and blasting the rowdiness out of her patrons when they needed it. She had been Jayen’s crew leader when he started out in security, and part of his regular rotation of bodyguards before that. She was also a friend of his mother’s and tended to administer all the motherly disapproval Lessandra never bothered with outside the dueling circle. “Aren’t you on duty today? As the head of security, you ought to set a better example.”
“I’m taking a personal day,” Jayen said. “Just pour the drink, Dacie.”
This did nothing to lessen her disapproval. “Is this really how you want to handle the situation?”
“Does literally everyone know about this already?”
She gestured to the far corner of the room, where Tor was in the middle of an animated retelling of his morning. He noticed them looking and gave a mockingly agreeable wave. Jayen swore under his breath. “Everyone in the whole damn town is going to know by dinnertime.”
She shrugged and poured him a shot of his favorite whiskey. He downed it immediately and smacked the glass down on the bar.
“Should I leave the bottle?” she asked with just a touch of sarcasm.
“No,” he muttered. He knew perfectly well he couldn’t afford to act like a self-indulgent brat, especially with Seya back in town. He’d spent his entire childhood being compared to her—the magical prodigy, the child Corin really wanted as his heir. His father had made no secret of the fact. Jayen had excellent high elementalist levels, a wall full of dueling trophies, and a fiercely loyal personality that drew the younger generations of the Malthusius to him, but that would do him no good if he couldn’t manage the clan’s bond magic. Or get the high tier to take him seriously as a candidate. His father had officially named him heir last year, but it was all uphill from there. The high tier considered him a waste to the bloodline, with his weak spiritual magic and his inexplicable preference for a boy from the rival clan Malthusius was directly responsible for having sundered. But there was nothing to be done about his magic, and it was not in Jayen’s nature to back down from a fight, or to abandon people he cared about. Even sly, redheaded bastards who’d broken his heart for reasons he did not quite understand and were currently pissing him the hell off.
“Let me guess, you went to see her and got abandoned by your favorite toy,” Tor said, slipping onto the barstool next to his. “I’m sorry, ex-toy.”
Jayen stood to go. Being around Tor was an unpleasant reminder of all the crap he’d done as a stupid, angry, rebellious teenager, and he’d been working his ass off for the last few years to distance himself from all that. Vico’s rebuke from the night before was stinging in his ears, too.
Tor clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on, man, you can’t take a little friendly ribbing for old time’s sake?” He waved at Dacie. “One for me, and another for my old friend.”
She came back down to their end of the bar, her disapproval nothing like motherly as she poured out Tor’s drink. She left Jayen’s glass empty.
“You can leave the bottle,” Tor said.
“I don’t want a repeat of last Friday, Torrance McKellen. Don’t you think for one second your mama’s influence is worth a good god’s damn in my place.”
“Come on, Dacie, I paid for the damage,” Tor said. He shot Jayen a smirk and poured him another shot. “You missed all the fun, crawling off early, Young Master. Nice little duel.”
“Duels have rules,” Dacie snapped, sharp as cut glass, with a meaning look at Jayen before she left.
Jayen made a mental note to come back later and ask her what she meant by that. He brushed Tor’s hand off his shoulder. “I’ve got things to do,” he said, with quick glance around to see who all was watching. They settled on Davin Gates and he ground his teeth, wishing he had said it louder, possibly with some swearing.
“We’ve got a bet going on, me and a few of the other night crew guys,” Tor said. “You’ll be pleased to hear they favor you to remain heir despite your older sister turning up out of the blue. The show of loyalty was truly moving. On the other hand, a couple of the guys from L&R were here, and they think Seya’s magic puts her back in the running.”
“She was never in the running,” Jayen snapped. “There’s no legal way for her to be named unless she finally submits to a blood trace, which she’d never agree to do. She hates Malthusius.”
“She did hate us,” Tor said. “But now her precious bond brother is ours. Personally, I think it’s a toss up as to whether they’ll decamp together, or if she’ll decide she’s desperate enough to come crying to dear old dad after all this time. It has been a long time, after all. She could want anything. Or everything.”
“You’re so full of shit, McKellen,” Jayen said, but truthfully, he felt an unpleasant twinge at that. He’d been so angry that no one had told him she was back that he hadn’t thought much about what was going to happen next. “The high tier would never have her. Not with her mother’s history.” He said it mostly to reassure himself. The idea of her usurping his position was bad enough, but Vico running off with her was entirely too plausible.
Tor shrugged and tossed back his drink. “Sure, Jayen. I’m absolutely certain you’re right. It’s not like Marc and Corin were arguing about this very subject all morning. I mean, there’s no reason to. If they agreed.”
Addison would never agree to have her. If Tor was telling the truth, that meant his father was arguing for her. “You’re a liar. Always have been,” Jayen said.
Tor threw him a cocky smile. “Maybe you want to go talk to your old man before you go throwing around hurtful accusations like that. I had it from Marc’s own mouth.”
“When he asked you to go stir up trouble,” Jayen said. “Don’t think for a second you won’t see any repercussions for cursing people on the street. I want you in my office first thing tomorrow to have a nice chat about that.”
“She attacked me,” Tor said.
“I can’t imagine why she’d freak out after running into the guy who once broke her skull.”
“I was acquitted of that.”
Only because his mother had bought off the justiciar who’d presided over his case, Jayen knew.
“She dented my car with an illegal casting, maybe you should go talk to her about that.”
“Then you should have called the guard! Halcyon is in municipal territory. We have enough problems without having a complaint filed against us from a bondmaster.”
“Montreides is a joke. He’s never bothered before.”
“Did he have reason to bother?” Jayen asked, his tone sharpening. He had no great sympathy for Halcyon or its pacifist bondmaster, but he didn’t tolerate his crews harassing people from other territories.
Tor just smirked. “Talk to your dad, Jayen. You’re going to need allies on the high tier before this is over, if you want to keep your inheritance. Lucky for you, I’m still willing to consider you a friend.”
Jayen left before he could lose his temper. He’d have dearly loved a reason to throw Tor out of his department, and not just because it would make Vico happy. Letting him in at all had been a mistake. If Tor’s mother hadn’t been such a big deal on the high tier, Jayen would never have given him a place in security, or even associated with him—he was lazy, and a troublemaker, and there were a number of other very good reasons why they weren’t friends anymore. He should have held firm to that. Accepting the request made him look like he was caving to the McKellens’ influence after years of holding out. But rejecting it would have made him look petty over an incident that had happened over a decade ago, to say nothing of the inevitable claims that he was being preferential towards Vico, which was dangerous. For both of them.
He pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration. Clan politics was Jayen’s own special version of hell. He had no natural talent for it. Jayen preferred the straightforwardness of working security or engaging in duels—assess the threats and weaknesses, shore up against them, attack when necessary. He knew when he’d won. He didn’t like needing to weigh every action and word and glance for the layers of intent, make sacrifices for the greater benefit.
He was learning, slowly, but it had all gone so much more smoothly when he’d had Vico to help. Vico, who was so used to being beset on every side that playing them all against each other was second nature. He was a sharp observer, and fully capable of charming or manipulating information out of even the most truculent of adversaries, and he never forgot anything. His absence had thrown just how much Jayen had taken his skills for granted into sharp and unforgiving relief.
Some things, Jayen felt, should not be let go, even if it meant a loss—which made it that much more important to win. He was still trying to figure out how to keep both of the things he wanted—his place as the future leader of the Malthusius, and Vico.
Though technically Vico was not his anymore, and had not been for nearly a year. But he was still within reach. That had to mean something, that maybe some small part of him had not given up on them. Jayen had been clinging to this slender thread of hope for months, and now there was a weight heavy enough to snap it completely.
Jayen got in his car. He tried to ping his father, but got no response. Micah was at lunch with his girlfriend, but promised to keep an ear out for him. Landen, head of the night crew, was not answering—probably asleep. He swore under this breath and pinged Hanna to tell her to have Landen contact him and to grill her about what was happening at the compound. No one knew where his father was—out on a business lunch was all he gleaned, but who knew if it was true. His father didn’t feel the need to keep him apprised of his actions, even keeping his own security staff, separate from the Jayen’s department.
Jayen clenched his fists around the steering wheel. He wanted to think that the progress he had made, becoming head of security, taking his place on the high tier, earning what loyalties he had—that all that meant something too, but the truth was, he just didn’t know. It was impossible to tell where he stood with Corin. He was an undemonstrative and demanding figure towards everyone, and his son was no different. Only Seya was different.
Had been different.
Jayen pinged Micah again.
–tell me where Vico is–
–I thought you were with him! are you seriously running around by yourself again?–
Jayen let his impatience answer for him. Micah finally pinged him back with the address, and an admonition not to lose his temper again.
He was parked across the street from the tiny, unassuming cafe as Vico and Seya walked out. Vico wore an easy smile, his posture relaxed. Even though Jayen knew perfectly well how much of his usual easygoing manner was deliberately cultivated to controvert his poor status and worse reputation, and to fool people into underestimating him, it still rankled, because it had been a year—no, more than a year, since he’d looked that much like himself, and it had to be Seya’s doing.
Vico was fairly happy, despite Seya’s noncommittal response to his offer. Just knowing their bond was not completely gone filled him up with a sense of purpose he had been lacking—he had no idea how it was even possible after so long, but it gave him a foothold. He wasn’t going to give it up.
He was sick to death of giving things up.
Seya had always been resistant to verbal manipulation—she could read people too well for that—so he had spent the entire mealtime dropping vague hints as to his current problems and being more open than usual with his emotional baggage. Empathy had always been her chief weakness. The incident at the market with the pickpocket and her concern over Starling’s tainted resonance meant she was still in the habit of poking her nose into things that didn’t sit right against that overactive sense of hers. He thought it was working before Jayen came storming across the street toward them.
“You!” he barked, making directly for Seya. “What are you doing back here?”
Seya stepped back. “Here was my home for most of my life. I think I’m entitled to check in now and again if I like.”
Vico could tell by the way he was moving toward her and his entirely too vibrant emotional state that he was prepared to get right up in her face about something. “Stop it,” he said, planting a firm hand on Jayen’s chest to make him stop. His eyes darted to the car—empty. “Are you seriously still running around by yourself? How much of an idiot do you need to be about this?”
“Are you fucking kidding me? You’re the one who let me go off on my own earlier! It’s kind of obvious where your priorities lie!” Jayen scowled over Vico’s shoulder at Seya. She lifted her chin and glared back.
Vico had a sudden urge to shake them both. “You’re the one who left rather than act like a rational adult about this situation! Gods and spirits—ping someone from security right now!”
“I don’t need a damn babysitter!” Jayen said. He pushed Vico’s hand away and tried to get around him.
But Vico would not be moved. He grabbed Jayen by his collar with one hand and planted his other forearm across Jayen’s chest, backing him up bodily. “Stop it,” he repeated, then drew back, incredulously. “Have you been drinking?”
“I had one drink!”
“It’s one o’clock in the afternoon!” Vico had found it a little worrying, how much time Jayen had been spending at Dacie’s lately; he’d never been much more than a social drinker before.
“You lost the moral authority to police my lifestyle habits when you left me!” Jayen snapped. Vico flinched at that and looked away, remembering a fraction of an instant too late that he needed to keep his feelings in check. Seya had picked up the hurt, if the way she narrowed her eyes at Jayen was any indication.
Jayen went on, oblivious. “And who cares, get out of my way! I’m here to talk to her.”
“You can talk just as well from this distance,” said Vico. “If what you really want is to shout out all your problems in the middle of the street.”
“If you think I’m gonna let her come back here and take away everything I’ve been working for—”
“No one is trying to steal your inheritance,” Vico said, grabbing him by the arm as he went after her again.
“You shut the hell up, Vico, I know you didn’t just forget to tell me she was here—or that Dad wanted to see her—or that he tried to bribe you to get her to talk to him! Is that what this is about? More of your playing us against each other?” He moved to pull Vico’s hand off of his arm, but stopped, not quite touching him. They glared at each other for a long moment.
Vico let go. “I already told you my reasons.”
“You gave a reason. Gods only know if it’s the real one. I know you, you don’t mind lying if it gets you what you want.”
Vico’s expression went cold at that. “I don’t lie to you.”
Jayen gave him a look of pure outrage and pointed at Seya over his shoulder.
“Not telling you things that are none of your gods damned business is not lying. We are done with this conversation. Seya, let’s go home.” He turned away, taking her arm with a hand that trembled slightly.
“We are not done here,” Jayen said, clapping his hand down on Vico’s shoulder. Vico, being much lighter built, found himself moved resolutely aside as Jayen advanced on Seya. She backed out of his reach, her eyes dark with anger and warning. She had always enjoyed a good duel, but in an actual fight, one with fists and grappling hands and searing emotional proximity, Vico knew she was at a serious disadvantage.
“I don’t want to see your father, and I sure as hell don’t want your clan, but if it’s a fight you want, I’d be more than happy to kick your ass one last time,” she spat.
Vico shook his head, stepping back as they started shouting at each other. He’d been trying to keep them out of each other’s aural spaces for exactly this reason. At least it was just shouting, though it was tempting to give up and let them fight. Even during the brief time when they had tried to get along for his sake, they couldn’t help it—their magic just clashed that way. Vico didn’t even think it was entirely their fault. They both had such headstrong personalities already, and the fact that they had been raised on a collision course practically from birth did not help. Of course their magic was going to react. In truth, he’d always felt they got along better when they let it run its course. Seya’s feelings on the subject of her unacknowledged half-brother were complicated, and Jayen had never been good at dealing with his own conflicted loyalties. It was something Vico had been working on fixing before Seya had disappeared, with his usual wiles and a smattering of emotional blackmail, and carefully orchestrated fights, because no matter how angry they were, they were both too forthright to deviate from the rules of a proper duel.
Which…wasn’t a bad idea.
He didn’t need to feign annoyance, just give what he was actually feeling free reign. Jayen’s attention was focused on Seya and their charmingly foul-mouthed verbal exchange—Seya had picked up some impressively colorful language somewhere. Her mother would have been horrified. He grabbed Jayen by the arm and tried to pull him away. “This is a bad idea,” he said, “You two are attracting too much attention here. There are better ways to solve this—”
“This is between me and her. Gods damn it! After everything she did, you’re still taking her side over mine?”
“There is no side!” Vico snapped back. “If the two of you want to blast each other into oblivion, that’s fine with me, but not on a public street, where other people can get hurt!”
“I’m game if he is,” she said.
“Are you challenging me?” Jayen demanded. “Because I would love to blast you right back out of town!”
“Fine, we’re all in agreement, then. Get in the car, idiots. There’s a park with a dueling circle a few blocks from here.” Vico intercepted Jayen as he made for the driver’s door. “No, I’m driving. You’re a maniac behind the wheel even when you’re not spoiling for a fight.”
Jayen didn’t try to argue. He tossed his keys at Vico and climbed into the front passenger seat. Vico opened the back driver side door for Seya before climbing into the car himself. “You know, between the two of you we ought to be able to scrape together at least one functioning adult.” Vico glanced at Seya with a pointed frown as she buckled herself in.
“What did I do?” she asked.
“I thought you might have grown up a little, at least. I guess that was too much to hope for.”
“I knew you were mad,” she muttered.
“I bloody well am now!”
Jayen smirked at her. She glared at him over the back of the seat.
“Ugh, you two. You know, you were sort of friends at one point. It’s been so long, why can’t you just give that a try again?”
“That wasn’t friendship,” Seya said. “We were just tolerating one another for your sake.”
Jayen slammed his fist into the window, venom spitting in his aura. The anti-shatter wards reverberated noisily.
“My two idiot children, back together at last,” Vico sighed. Now they were both glaring at him. That was fine. He could play the common enemy if it got them to stop shouting at each other.
They arrived at the park a few minutes later, with a little more bickering on the way. Jayen barely waited for Vico to stop the car before bolting out and making a beeline for the dueling circle. Vico rolled his eyes as he got out. Seya hung back with him, even though her anticipation was obvious.
Fortunately the park was deserted in the heat of the afternoon. The dueling area was in the farthest corner of the park from the main road, hidden in trees, the better to keep any stray spellwork from interfering with the traffic. Jayen was standing at the edge of the stone circle, fairly vibrating with impatience. “What, are you having second thoughts? Get a move on!” he bellowed across the space.
So of course Seya took her sweet time. Vico matched her pace. After a moment, she frowned at him. “Did you want us to duel?”
He flashed her a charming smile. “Now why would I want a thing like that?”
“You absolutely did, you bastard!” she said. “So what was all that crap about growing up?”
Vico shrugged. “Thought I could use a little moral authority.”
“And that line about not lying to him?”
“I didn’t lie. All I said was there were better ways to deal with your disagreement. You’re the one who challenged him.”
“I can’t believe I got taken twice today. I’m so out of practice,” she said, shaking her head.
“What, changed your mind about fighting?” Vico asked.
“Hell no, I’m kicking his ass. And then I’m kicking yours for trying to manipulate me.”
“I’m looking forward to watching you try,” he said.