Summer festooned the city of Reziva like jewelry that brought out the best features in a fair maiden. White marble glittered in the high sun, and the air smelled of sweet flowers; children screamed with delight in the streets, their parents observing lazily in the heat. Valtteri picked his way through each level of the city with feigned lack of urgency.
Servants greeted him in the palace courtyard to take his baggage and his horse. The facade of the castle brought him a somewhat looming feeling ever since his father had taken away his inheritance; he still held onto the hope that Reziva would someday be his future home, and yet the airy white marble filled him with dread. The fact that Casimir had set foot inside its walls once more was an occurrence to be amply rewarded.
Valtteri strode the familiar hallways on the west side of the palace in the direction of Casimir’s chambers, which overlooked the central gardens, like most of the family’s accommodations. He passed his father’s study and most of his brothers’ rooms without incident, though his stomach clenched at every turn. Soon, the steward would report his arrival—and his disappearance after Regan’s failed courtship would raise plenty of questions he didn’t yet know how to answer.
Casimir heeded his call on the first knock.
“This had better be good,” he said, stepping aside to allow Valtteri within.
Valtteri sighed as the door thumped closed behind him. “I don’t know what you would call good. But thanks for coming back.”
“I’m leaving at dawn unless you give me a compelling reason to stay. I ran into mother on the way in.”
Valtteri swept his eyes over the bare surfaces of the room, undisturbed save for Casimir’s saddle pack tossed across the bed. “What did she say?”
“Say? Nothing. She turned white and bolted like a deer.”
“I’ve come to terms with her indifference,” Casimir said. “Now, tell me why you asked me back. We don’t have much time.”
Turning around, Valtteri frowned. “No, I suppose we don’t. Cas…”
He raised one eyebrow in a manner that was simultaneously inquisitive and mocking.
“I need you to help me hide someone.”
His brother smirked. “My, Valtteri, what have you been up to?”
“Shut up,” he said, shoving his hands in his pockets. He shuffled his feet. “This is serious.”
“And ‘this’ is?”
Valtteri swallowed. “A woman I met in the Spine is carrying my child.”
The look on Casimir’s face was nothing short of gleeful. “What?”
Valtteri held his gaze—and then, at the same moment, they both started laughing. Casimir took a few steps forward to clap him on the shoulder.
“This story was absolutely worth coming back for. Tell me everything.”
Valtteri did so, conveying every last detail—even the permanent twist in his gut.
“If father finds out,” Valtteri said at the end, “he’ll never forgive me. I’d be proving him wrong and shirking my duty all at once.”
“Gods, I’d love to see his face,” Casimir said.
Valtteri grimaced. “Yeah…me too, honestly. But I’d like him to be unaware of this more.”
“So you need a way to communicate, a way to send her funds, and a way to ensure father never finds out.”
“You’re the best mage there is, Cas. But I’m sorry I called you back for this.”
“On the contrary, I feel as if protecting you is the greatest calling of all.”
Valtteri shot him a wry look. Casimir grinned.
“Sending messages is easy,” Casimir said. “There’s a potion I can brew mass quantities of that’ll ensure your messenger can’t reveal his task. You’ll just have to meet him secretly in the city.”
“Regan will follow me if he detects a pattern.”
“So don’t have a pattern.” Casimir laughed. “Honestly, does your candor make you stupid?”
Valtteri flipped him off. “And you’ll send Sofia funds?”
“Of course. But we’ll need to coordinate. I don’t plan on being very close to the Ice Realm if I can help it.”
“Twice a year should do it,” Valtteri said. “Where can we meet?”
Valtteri didn’t press him on the choice of venue. “All that leaves is father.”
Casimir crossed him arms, an imposing figure in onyx robes—taller than Valtteri even at seventeen. “Father isn’t as good as he thinks he is. But the next step is for me to meet Sofia.”
“You can’t scare her off.”
“She could have easily gotten rid of the child, Valtteri. She obviously isn’t scared off that easily.”
“How do you know I was honest with her?”
He snorted. “When have you been dishonest? It’s not in you, Valtteri.”
“I could be if I needed to,” he said insolently.
Casimir smiled, reaching forward to pat him on the shoulder. “Sure you could.”
Clenching his teeth, Valtteri scowled. “You do know it’s only my unending affection for you that stops me from preying on your deepest insecurities.”
With a wolfish grin, Casimir breathed another laugh. “I must be mishearing you, for I don’t think it’s customary to threaten the man whose help you so desperately need.”
“Be a little less cocky, and perhaps we’ll come to an agreement.”
“I gave you contraception before you left for your assignment. This is on you, and can be on you in totality.”
Valtteri looked his brother up and down. “Your travels must be going quite well for you to be so chipper.”
“I recently destroyed a sacrificial cult from the inside, so you could say that.”
“What was their manner of sacrifice?”
“Animals, mostly. It was too easy to get in and only marginally complicated to get out. My next goal is the cannibals.”
The corners of Valtteri’s mouth twitched. “It’s good to see you, Cas.”
Casimir winked. “Ah, I’ve missed you too, dear brother.”