This, thought Domitan of Masbolle, as he gazed around the crowd at the Jugged Hare, was exactly how a soldier should return home. There was good food, decent ale, pretty women, and lively conversation with friends. It was everything he had dreamed of during the long cold nights of his posting up at the Scanran border. When his company was finally recalled to Corus, he had cheerfully imagined this very scene all the way home.
So, he told himself sternly, he had no business being so miserable.
He looked across the table to where his party was laughing. He had originally come with his cousin, Neal, and Neal’s intended, Yuki, to enjoy a meal to celebrate being home. Soon after, they were joined by Kel and a group of friends from her and Neal’s page class. All of whom were currently laughing and enjoying themselves, while Dom tried not to imagine pushing his stew into his cousin’s face.
“Seriously, Neal,” Kel chuckled. “I don’t know how you never knew! Didn’t the Lioness teach you any observational skills?”
“It just doesn’t make any sense!” Neal protested. “How was I supposed to know?”
“You were several years older than me, handsome, and my best friend,” Kel pointed out. “I think it’s rather a given I had a crush on you at some point.”
Yuki nodded. “It makes complete sense.”
“I could tell,” Seaver offered. Neal looked at him in surprise, and he shrugged before taking another bite of his meat pie. “I figured it wasn’t any of my business.”
“I had a crush on Kel for a short time,” Owen said. “I thought she was magnificent, fighting off all the bullies like that.”
“You see, that I could tell!” Neal exclaimed, gesturing with his fork.
“Really? I couldn’t,” Kel said.
“You might have been the only one,” Merric commented. The table descended into laughter again. Dom forced a smile.
It was ancient history, he told himself. He just didn’t like it because they were all reminiscing about times he wasn’t a part of. When they were pages he was already in the King’s Own, fast on his way to becoming a Sergeant. Of course, he had had no desire to become a knight, but it’s never pleasant listening to inside jokes you aren’t a part of.
That was absolutely the only reason for the pit in the bottom of his stomach, or the fact that he found himself wanting to throw something.
“Dom?” He looked up to see Kel frowning at him from across the table. The candlelight softly illuminated her hair from behind, and Dom had the sudden thought that those who called her mannish must have never seen her like this, with her hazel green eyes glinting and long eyelashes fluttering over her cheek.
He put his tankard down. Clearly he had had more than enough to drink, to be thinking such things.
“Sorry, Kel,” he smiled, more genuinely than before. “I was woolgathering.”
“We were discussing walking over to the Midsummer market,” Kel said. “But if you’re too tired from your journey, we won’t be offended if you head back.”
“Miss an opportunity to spend my coin on some overpriced trinkets? Never!” he declared. “Besides, I hear there’s a tumbling troupe performing who are supposed to be very good.”
“If you’re sure,” Kel frowned. “You only returned yesterday.”
“And abandon you with Meathead?” Dom scoffed. “Some friend I would be!”
A piece of bread came flying down the table and hit Dom in the side of the head. “Sir Meathead, if you please,” Neal said primly before turning to help Yuki from her seat.
Kel grinned and shook her head. “You two must have been absolutely exhausting as children.”
“I resent the implication that I’m not absolutely exhausting now.” Dom watched Kel stand, taking a moment to smooth her hands over her dress – a surprisingly feminine purple number that, despite the lack of lace or ribbons, was very becoming, skimming along the curves of her body – and flipped a few coins on the table. Dom realized that he was staring and hurried to say something, hoping Kel hadn’t noticed. “Many ladies at court will tell you how terrible I am.” After the words left his mouth he felt a little silly. Why couldn’t he remember all of a sudden how to talk to Kel like normal?
“I’m sure,” Kel said drily. “Come on, Jump.” Jump bounded over from the table where he had been shamelessly begging for scraps. She walked backwards to the door, somehow dodging a serving girl carrying a handful of tankards. “Well, come on if you’re coming. We’ll try not to be too dull for you.”
Dom shook his head and stood, taking a long pull at his tankard before striding out. This evening was a little strange, but hopefully a stroll in the summer evening with friends would put things to right.
As he exited, Neal came forward to where he had been leaning against the wall and sauntered over to him. “The others have gone ahead, since you were taking your sweet time.”
Dom pushed down a wave of irritation. His cousin really could be unconscionably obnoxious at times. He eyed the swoop of hair that fell rakishly over Neal’s dark green eyes and wondered what on earth Kel could have ever seen in such a nincompoop.
“Let’s go, then,” he said, gesturing for Neal to lead on.
Neal grinned and looped an arm through his. Dom tried to tug free, but Neal held fast. He briefly debated trying again, but he knew Neal’s stubbornness was matched by few and the next thing he knew they would be roughhousing in the street like children.
“It was nice reminiscing about old times,” Neal said.
“Most of the time, it feels like our page days was just yesterday. But then I look back and realize it really was very long ago.”
Dom hummed in agreement again and wondered if there was a point to this.
“Ten years ago, for example,” Neal continued. “I was a university student, concerned with avoiding my deadlines and mooning about after pretty girls.”
“Sounds right,” Dom said. He remembered well his letters from Neal in those days. Every time there was a new beauty, whether a fellow student, a professor, or a lady who Neal decided was the love of his life. It had become a running joke in the family, how Neal would never settle down and focus on something real.
“But then the Immortals War happened, and we lost Graeme and Cathal, and I had to start all over. I thought my life was over.” Neal looked straight ahead as they walked, his face betraying none of the pain Dom knew he still felt at the loss of his brothers.
“I never thought I would meet my best friend in the world at page training, or that she would be a girl five years younger than me. Or that she would change my life. Still, she’s changed a lot too. She was so solemn when she first came to court. I had never met anyone like her.”
“Neither have I,” Dom said.
They had nearly approached the group on the edge of the street festival. Owen was telling some sort of story to Yuki, who stood and nodded politely as he gestured wildly. Merric was standing at a booth, closely examining a display of throwing knives. But Dom’s eyes were straight to Kel, where she knelt before a group of street children. The oldest was probably no more than 6, and they were showering Jump with pets and kisses. Kel laughed at something one of them said, and handed a little girl a coin, pointing her to a booth selling sweets. The children cheered and ran to it, eagerly picking out a treat.
“My point is,” Neal said, bringing Dom’s attention back to him, “is that we’ve all changed. We’re not the people we were back then. But Kel’s always been the best of us.” He clapped Dom on the shoulder and walked away. As he passed by Kel, he turned his head away from her and winked at Dom.
Dom sighed. It really was aggravating how Neal could manage to be so annoying while still thinking of others.
He looked again at Kel. She stood before a booth selling small woven baskets, chatting with the elderly woman perched on a stool next to it. She laughed suddenly, throwing her head back, and Dom felt his heart flip.
Get it together, Masbolle, he told himself. You’re home from a war. It’s a whole new world.
He took a deep breath and walked over to Kel.