Shield Mate

The Chronicles of Ylandre, Book 7

Eressë

 

Prologue

Beginnings

Ylandre, in the 2981st Year of the Common Age

The head of the detail of Citadel guards stared in disbelief. Five aristocrats cluttered the street in various degrees of consciousness, all bearing evidence of having been soundly thrashed. That in itself was a common occurrence in the seedy south district of Ylandre’s capital where violent frays were the rule. But the thrashing had been done by a Half Blood Deir still several years short of his majority, and that was the source of the serjeant’s astonishment.

Granted the youth was a cadet at the Ylandre Military Academy north of Ilmaren. That meant he’d had training in the soldierly arts. For this reason, the city constabulary often augmented its numbers with military students during the winter months when many constables took leaves in order to see their families through the cold season. Hence the presence of the cadet in this squalid section of Rikara. He’d been helping patrol the district.

But the youth was only a fresher at the Academy. Therefore, he should not have been able to fight, much less lay low a gang of full-grown Deira. Then again the cadet looked strong and able and appeared mature for his age. And he had been assisted by the itinerant pedlar who’d been the reason for the brawl. Or rather the defense of said pedlar’s virtue.

The latter explained that he was set upon by the bluebloods who thought he would be better sport than the brothel doxies or trulls who walked the streets. It was while he was in the midst of fending off his assailants that the cadet came upon them and cast his lot with him. A wholly unexpected choice in a society where the upper crust often got away with iniquities if the iniquity was committed against the poor and powerless.

The cadet was presently eyeing the pedlar with a frown. The serjeant wondered if he knew him. He moved in front of the youth, interrupting his perusal.

“What is your name, cadet?” he asked.

The youth snapped his attention back to the officer. He drew himself up and faced the serjeant squarely.

“Vaeren Henaz, Dyhar.”

* * * *

The Royal Garrison, C.A. 2988

Ranael Mesare looked around the sprawling compound with interest. The Royal Garrison was Ylandre’s largest army camp. It was located two leagues distant from the capital city of Rikara.

Unless Ranael was assigned elsewhere, this would be his base. This would be his home.

Though but two years past his majority, he was already a subaltern and had never experienced how it was to be a common soldier with little hope of entering the ranks of command. That came of hailing from the nobility. Authority in Ylandre’s military forces was rarely entrusted to non-bluebloods and virtually never to the lower caste sedyra.

This stemmed from the belief that it was dangerous for anyone from the more numerous Half Bloods to gain a taste of power in any form. The armed forces reflected society at large after all.

Yes, enyra had betrayed the Crown before, even high-born ones. But since True Bloods had much more to lose should they be discovered engaged in perfidy, few were tempted to further themselves or their wealth by way of treason or rebellion. The loss of name and estate coupled with a long stint in prison or the threat of a dance from the gibbets went a long way in discouraging well-born citizens from indulging in treachery.

Not so Deira of lower birth and smaller inheritance. The hope of power and wealth under a new regime could lure a sedyr into doing a foe’s bidding. At least, that was the reasoning trotted out whenever a True Blood was chosen over a Half Blood or an aristocrat preferred to a commoner.

Strangely enough, the Half Bloods accepted this reasoning, even believed it. Or perhaps it was not so strange given such logic was ingrained in every Ylandrin almost from birth.

Ranael was not sure he believed it. But neither did he question its continued implementation. He was a Herun’s son, his sire ruler of one of the major fiefs and his birthing father a scion of the Royal House. Far be it from him to question the policies of an institution as old as the monarchy itself. You could count on one hand the number of times Ylandre’s armed forces had tasted resounding defeat since the founding of the kingdom. Why change what had proved successful for millennia?

He turned his steed toward the two-story building which served as the headquarters of the First, Second, and Third Regiments of the Royal Army and housed the camp commanders’ offices. That a professional army existed bespoke the foresight of his Essendri ancestors, Ranael thought with some pride. Not to mention considerable distrust of the kingdom’s neighbors.

Ylandre was one of the few nations of Aisen with a standing army. Most sovereign heads called upon their vassal lords to provide soldiers and arms should war be in the offing. Such a system kept royal coffers from being drained. But on the other hand it required utmost loyalty from the nobles and a willingness to hand the reins of command over their armies to the reigning monarch. Dissidence in the land could prove fatal should it coincide with looming armed conflict. And there was also the matter of rewarding the aforementioned lords following victory, usually with an increase in territory or power.

Twelve centuries ago, Diorn Essendri faced the repercussions of the system after he put down rebellion and then gathered together those nobles who’d sworn loyalty to him in order to drive invaders out of his kingdom. He’d demanded renewed oaths of fealty from his supporters. He’d also imposed stricter penalties at the slightest hint of sedition. But that was no guarantee those lords or their descendants would not forswear themselves.

Unwilling to be dependent to such a degree on his vassals, Diorn created an army accountable to the Crown alone. A century or so later, his son and successor followed his example. He built a naval fleet as well with mariners mustered, trained, and paid for by the government. Of course, the maintenance of standing armed forces of considerable size required deep pockets. Ylandre happened to have the good fortune of being a very affluent nation.

It was also Ranael’s good fortune he’d been born into an enviable portion of that affluence. Hence the unexpectedness of his choice of profession.

The greater percentage of riches rested in the hands of the upper crust and the growing merchant class, but the major fief-lords were inordinately wealthy and held such power they were answerable only to the Ardan. Ranael had known naught but luxury and privilege since the day he was born. The gold elliptical earring adorned with a single emerald that hung from his left ear marked him as a fief-lord’s son. The crest inscribed below the gem identified his clan as well as the extent of his wealth.

Though a middle son with little chance of succeeding his sire as Herun of Edessa, his personal wealth in addition to what he would inherit ensured a similar upbringing for his future progeny. It had also afforded him the choice of any occupation he fancied whether it earned him a decent livelihood or not. He could have studied law, gone into politics or, Veres forbid, as his sire was wont to say, joined the Church, an ancient practice for younger sons in ages gone by. Instead, he’d abided by another old tradition.

He entered the Royal Army.

Ranael dismounted in the narrow yard of the command hall, noticing which warriors were taking sentry duty seriously and which ones he would consign to the kitchens, stables, or latrines if it were up to him. Perhaps the soldiers upon whom his gaze had fallen sensed his disapproval for they quickly stiffened their postures and donned alert expressions. Ranael stifled a snort of disdain and entered the building.

He was about to learn where he would be stationed for the next three years or so and what he could expect of the posting—who his superiors would be, the soldiers he would be serving with, and what action he might see. If there was any action to see. He hoped there would be, else he might not warrant promotion as swiftly as he desired.

Ranael was not his sire’s heir, but he was still a fief-lord’s son and a member of the highest House in the land. He was no stranger to ambition and bore no distaste for the deference and power that came with greater rank and authority.

He was determined to do his family proud. If he could achieve this on his own merits, so much the better.

Chapter 1

Threshold

Ylandre, in the 2997th Year of the Common Age

“Commander Mesare, I am pleased to inform you that your elevation to captain has been approved.”

Ranael stared speechlessly at Praetor Arval, commandant of the Royal Garrison. He’d known he was in line for a promotion, but he had not thought it would go forward so quickly. He regarded the praetor curiously.

“I’m honored,” he said. “I only hope I truly earned it.”

He allowed his statement to end on a questioning note. Arval smiled and shook his head.

“I assure you, neither the Ardan nor your sire intervened on your behalf. You are wholly deserving of this promotion. Really, Ran-min, do you think I would act thusly given how sensitive you are about making your own way?”

Ranael relaxed and smiled back. “I know you wouldn’t, Dyhar. But not everyone knows me as well as you do. You can’t deny there’s much to gain from having a Mesare in one’s debt.”

Arval nodded. “But you’ve shown your displeasure at being coddled due to your name. I doubt there are many left who still think gaining your gratitude is a guarantee of social advancement.”

He motioned to Ranael to sit down before his desk. “The official announcement will be made a fortnight hence. But I see no reason not to let you know which company you’ll be taking over.” He handed over a sheet of parchment.

Ranael quickly scanned the document. He looked up in some surprise. “I’m to head the Red Knights? But that’s one of the Army’s premier companies. I can’t believe you’d entrust it to me.”

“Because of your youth?” Arval snorted. “Nonsense. The Ardan is far younger than any of his peers in other lands, yet no one questions his capability.”

“Rohyr is more than capable,” Ranael pointed out. “He’s proved an exemplary leader despite his youth.”

“As you’ve proved yourself an excellent commanding officer despite yours,” Arval replied. “Besides, the Red Knights is probably one of the youngest companies in terms of its warriors’ ages. Most are in their fifties and none is older than sixty-five summers. Indeed, your second is younger than you by some months. So they should suit you very well and you they.”

“I see,” Ranael murmured. He considered the document again.

The Red Knights, so named for the crimson of the company standard, was a part of the all-cavalry Second Regiment. The company was renowned for its fierce riders whose feats of battle were lauded in many a historical account of the kingdom’s armed forces. It was also the only mounted company that boasted a whole troop of yudare, practitioners of the ancient martial art of Naeren archery.

To this day, when the Red Knights rode into battle, their mounted archers systematically picked off the opposing army’s leaders as well as several of the flanking riders or soldiers, thus sowing panic and confusion among the enemy. The sight of the company’s crimson standard often struck the fear of Veres into the hearts of their foes and usually prompted those on the perimeters to move inward in the hope of lessening their chances of being the yudare’s first targets. Of course, doing so could cause the soldiers to break formation, which in turn hampered attempts at an orderly charge and the maintenance of strategy.

Small wonder Ranael felt some apprehension at having been given command of one of the cavalry’s preeminent companies.

“I’m deeply honored, Dyhar,” he gravely said. “I hope I do you proud.”

“I’m sure you will,” Arval replied with a small smile. He glanced at the timepiece on his desk and got to his feet, prompting Ranael to do likewise. “It’s midday. Everyone will have gone to the meal hall,” he said, coming around his desk. “Why wait for the formal announcement to present Commander Henaz to you, when it would serve you well to get to know each other soonest?”

“Henaz?” Ranael looked sideways at the praetor as they left the room. “Tribune Henaz died during the last uprising in Tenerith. If I recall correctly, he had no children, and no other of his family are in the army.”

“No legitimate children,” Arval corrected. “Commander Henaz is his only issue, duly acknowledged as such in his birth records, but not recognized or accepted by the tribune’s family due to his birthing father having been a Half Blood commissary worker.”

Ranael blinked. “A sedyran by-blow made it this high up in command? I thought the most they could aspire to was serjeant.”

“He’s half enyr and sprung from a blueblood,” Arval pointed out. “And he apparently inherited his sire’s mind gifts. He’s quite strong for a Half Blood with no training until he enrolled at the Academy. Incidentally, it was on my recommendation that he was elevated to subaltern back in the day.”

“Yours? What was your basis?”

“Aside from his performing an act of bravery beyond the call of duty?” Arvan flicked Ranael a wry smile. “He saved my life in the bargain and wound up in hospital for nigh a month for his pains. The physicians had quite a time of it pulling him back from the brink and then getting him fit again to return to duty. As for his current rank, well, do you recall the conflict in the south last year?”

“When Velarus was being overrun by brigands from Cattania?” Ranael shrugged. “I know Rohyr had them driven back over the border in return for the Velarusians’ agreement to establish a garrison near that town—what’s its name?”

“Tal Ereq. You’d do well to remember since it’s the hometown of your cousin’s leman.”

Ranael grinned ruefully. He’d forgotten Lassen Idana, Rohyr’s beauteous lover of just over a year, hailed from eastern Velarus.

They left the command hall and walked down the stone-paved path to the meal hall.

“Commander Henaz led our troops against the Cattanians,” Arval said.

Ranael frowned. “But you implied he was still a subaltern at the time. That would have precluded him from heading a campaign. Even a minor one against mere bandits.”

“They weren’t mere bandits, but the worst of Cattania’s outlaws. The principality deliberately set them loose beyond the border. They were pillaging and slaughtering their way westward when the entreaty for help was sent to Rikara. I understand several villages and not a few towns no longer stand because of those knaves.”

Ranael was appalled. “I wasn’t aware of that. Forgive me my flippancy, Dyhar.”

“Verily, you wouldn’t have known,” Arval conceded. “It was a regional issue. Details weren’t widely circulated in the army. I only knew because the troops hailed from this camp.”

“Why did they?” Ranael asked. “The Crown Garrison is supposed to provide soldiers and arms for the south. It came as a surprise to us when we heard we wouldn’t be providing assistance.”

“Supposed to, yes, but the Ardan insisted that Henaz head the campaign, as well as bring two of our best companies with him. But as you said, he was only a subaltern and therefore barred from taking on such a mission. So what does His Majesty do but order he be elevated to the next rank, thus enabling him to lead the troops in Velarus.”

“How very odd,” Ranael remarked. “Why did Rohyr bypass normal procedure?”

“Bless if I know,” Arval admitted. “Even Henaz has no inkling why the Ardan intervened on his behalf. There was speculation that perhaps His Majesty wished to open up command to commoners and the like and used Vaeren as a precedent. Others postulated it was a reward for services well rendered. If either is true, well, personally I think it’s about time. We place too much value on social station and not enough on ability.”

As they neared the meal hall Arval suddenly laid a rather severe look on Ranael.

“Don’t do as I did, Ran-min,” he said. “Blood and birth aren’t reason enough to admire or belittle anyone. Commander Henaz has proved his worth many times over even in the face of the scorn sometimes shown him by his supposed betters. I trust you won’t join their unenlightened ranks.”

Ranael’s eyes widened slightly. The praetor was not given to showing favor toward any but a handful he deemed as close as family. His kind disposition toward Ranael was due to his close friendship with Ranael’s sire, the Herun of Edessa. That Henaz had warranted his defense was surprising to say the least.

“I’m no bigot,” he said, wincing at the defensiveness he heard in his voice.

“Not a deliberate one,” Arval said as they entered the building, a three-level edifice of grayish-beige brick and white stone. “But you were raised with certain expectations of how folk should speak or behave. And that includes minding their places in society. You can’t deny you’re uncomfortable with plebeian company. You’ve expressed your discomfort before, though admittedly never with ill intent. But prejudice, however unintended, is still prejudice and a lamentable hindrance to those whose only crime is to belong to the wrong class.”

Ranael now stared at the praetor. “You admonished me not to act as you did. May I assume you didn’t always regard Henaz highly?”

Arval nodded. “I’m not proud of it. It’s also embarrassing to be taught one’s manners by someone who shouldn’t have known better. If I counsel you now, it’s as much for your sake as his. The pride of the Mesares is second to none. While you don’t exhibit it much of the time, I know it’s there, and you won’t lightly countenance a blow against it.”

After a moment of indignation, Ranael said, “I’ll keep that in mind.”

He followed the praetor up the stairs to the ranking officers’ dining room.

It was a spacious chamber with polished wood floors and tapestry-adorned paneled walls. Its curtained windows overlooked one of two pocket gardens in the entire camp; the other was located behind the officers’ barracks. It was altogether different from the dining hall of the rankers on the ground floor with its plain walls and stone floors. What made it an even more exclusive enclave was that the low-level officers ate downstairs albeit at separate tables from the common soldiers and served similar fare to their higher-ranking colleagues.

The officers’ dining room was also much better appointed. Whereas the rankers sat themselves at plain narrow tables on long benches, the officers had the luxury of cushioned chairs and damask-covered tables set with fine dinnerware. The latter was a far cry from the metal mugs and trenchers used by ordinary soldiers—wooden plates if a base was large and well supplied, thick slices of bread sufficing if not.

Ranael could still remember his first days at the garrison on the Lithuanan border in the east. The base was small and remote, the officers’ only luxury their individual bedchambers in a house apart from the barracks. Everything else was shared including the one dining room with the officers’ tableware and fare little different from the rest. Well, except for the finer, more copious ale and wine and better cuts of meat.

He was a serjeant then and thought himself unfazed by the spartan living that was the lot of most military folk below the middle ranks of command. He’d proved his assumption false at his very first meal. He could still recall his shock upon being served boiled chunks of meat and a mélange of root vegetables atop a thick slab of bread that had been laid directly on the table in front of him. It had taken him several days to get used to eating his plate as well.

Supposedly, the more comfortable, even luxurious facilities afforded the ranking officers were a reward for their mettle in climbing the military ladder. It was the standard reason given for the segregation and privileges.

Ranael sometimes wondered if it was just another way to emphasize the wide gap between castes considering that Half Bloods rarely made it past the rank of serjeant. Therefore few of their numbers made their way to the upper levels, literally and figuratively speaking. But though he might question some traditions, Ranael was too much a blueblood to doubt the rightness of such practices or understand what effects might come of them particularly with regards to folk whose personal circumstances were far removed from his own.

As he walked into the dining room, he scanned the chamber wondering who among the officers present had been appointed his second. Shortly after being promoted to subaltern, he was posted to the Terazian Marches in the north. He’d then transferred to the Crown Garrison in the Midlands near his home-fief of Edessa following his elevation to commander. Thus he was not familiar with the Royal Garrison soldiers who had ascended into command in the intervening years. Nor had he had much chance to meet them all in the two days since his return.

“Ah, there he is,” the praetor said. “Commander Henaz!” he called out imperatively.

A dark-haired warrior detached himself from a small group engaged in idle talk a few paces ahead and swiftly made his way to them. Ranael stared at the Deir with visceral appreciation, a reaction so rare he could barely remember the last time it occurred. This was many years ago when he was still an impressionable youth visiting court for the first time. He’d gawked at his royal relations, especially his cousin the Crown Prince.

Arval had made it clear the commander was not of aristocratic birth or affluent background and thus did not have the benefit of the privileged upbringing of most officers. Therefore, he should not have stood out among his socially superior peers. Yet he caught the eye almost at once, drawing attention away from his higher-born colleagues by dint of his carriage and appearance.

Ranael thought he had yet to see a handsomer Deir outside of House Essendri. Or one who moved with the grace and controlled ferocity of a barely tamed wildcat. There was a whiplash quality to him that gave the impression of quick reflexes and the temper to match. But the warrior’s gem-green gaze, while alert and speculative, was steady and calm. He bore none of the suppressed belligerence of a hothead.

Vaeren Henaz was tall for a Half Blood. He and Ranael were of a height and equally well knit. But whereas Ranael was fair-haired, Vaeren’s locks were a rich burnt umber. Surprisingly, he wore his hair long enough to twist into a thick braid that barely reached past his shoulders. Not quite sedyran fashion, but certainly different from the nape-length tresses favored by enyra and a contrast to the even shorter style military officers sported. Considering most officers above the rank of serjeant were True Bloods and the majority no lower than upper gentry, the sight of Henaz’s lengthy locks amidst the cropped heads of his colleagues was a startling one.

It was an open flouting of tradition in a largely hidebound organization. It seemed the officer had chosen to remind everyone of his ascent into command despite his lack of pedigree.

Arval introduced him with military succinctness, mentioning only his name, rank, and which troop he led.

“Captain Mesare, this is Vaeren Henaz, Commander, Rikara Guards of the Red Knights. And a fortnight hence, your second-in-command.”

Henaz bowed his head briefly. He met Ranael’s gaze with the dutiful tractability of a subordinate deferring to his superior.

“I am honored, Mesare-dyhar,” he said.

“As am I,” Ranael replied. He noticed no earring dangled from the commander’s left ear. He wondered if this was because Henaz did not think he was of suitable station to wear one or in defiance of societal traditions. “Praetor Arval mentioned how well you have served even nigh unto the cost of life and limb.”

The commander shrugged ever so slightly. “I only did my duty.”

Ranael regarded him curiously. The Deir was not indifferent to the tacit compliment, but neither was he flattered as others were when praised for their performance. He simply accepted the compliment as a matter of course. Ranael glanced at the praetor and saw the latter was smiling with some amusement.

“Save that you went beyond duty,” Arval pointed out. “Or do you count your saving my life of no great consequence?”

Henaz shook his head. “Not at all, Dyhar. But there was none near enough to aid you other than myself. I’m certain had there been, he would have done as I did.”

“Somehow I doubt it,” Arval countered. He addressed Ranael who could not help a start of surprise at their exchange. “I was far from popular with the regiment I commanded at the time. I was harsh beyond reason and nursed too much disdain for the soldiers in my charge. Don’t deny it, Vaer-min,” he mildly ordered the commander. “You witnessed my idiocy and bore not a few unwarranted tongue-lashings as well. I wager your fellows wouldn’t have cared if I’d been squashed flat as a bug had it gained them a new and less disagreeable commanding officer.”

He smiled drily. “When Vaeren went against the flow, he didn’t make himself new friends. Indeed he gained a number of foes for thwarting their hopes for my early demise. I had him transferred to another regiment as soon as he returned to duty to keep him safe from retribution. And as I told you earlier, I recommended he be promoted. He certainly earned it.”

Ranael noted the commander’s cheeks had colored ever so faintly. But Henaz maintained his formal mien, permitting himself only a small, appreciative smile.

“Ah, enough of this,” Arval said with a snort. “Let’s sit, shall we? The pair of you can talk over lunch.”

The pair of them found themselves at table with the camp’s highest-ranked officers—Arval and the three regimental tribunes. As the only relatively junior officers present, they wound up talking to each other which is probably what Arval had intended when he asked them to join him.

Sly old hound, Ranael thought with some irritation and a smidgen of fondness.

Strangers to each other, it was not surprising they engaged in small talk initially—which instructors they had in common, their initial postings and superiors upon entry into the Royal Army, and officers they were mutually acquainted with. Ranael did not expect an exchange of more personal information.

Under cover of taking a mouthful of soup, he watched Vaeren tighten the black leather band that kept his braid in place. He wondered how the commander looked when his hair was loose about his shoulders and what it would feel like to run his hand through the thick tresses. An instant later, he sucked in his breath, alarmed that he’d thought of such a thing. He was not given to random and wholly inappropriate ideas. Whence this one? Why had it come to mind at all?

“We are but months apart in age,” he abruptly said. “Why didn’t we meet at the Academy?”

“Because we weren’t in the same class,” Vaeren replied. “My entry into the Academy was delayed by a year.”

That explained the absence of encounters. Cadets from different year levels hardly if ever mingled. Even these occasions were more oft than not during drills and the like when few had the time or energy to ask after one’s academy mates. What did surprise him was the commander’s belated entry.

“Why so long a delay?”

“I presume you know I’m a bastard.”

Ranael was slightly taken aback by his new second’s matter-of-fact utterance of the derogatory term.

“Praetor Arval informed me of the circumstances of your birth,” he cautiously affirmed.

The corners of Vaeren’s mouth curved into a wry smile. “How very tactful of you,” he commented. Before Ranael could respond, he said, “Academy policy requires all applicants to present certification of their origins, in particular parentage and date and place of birth. It was a while before I was able to retrieve my birth records.”

Ranael sighed in chagrin at having broached a matter that further pointed up Vaeren’s illegitimacy.

By-blows seldom had their birth documents at hand unless they’d been legitimized or formally recognized by their sires. Most had to seek the registrar of births to whom their records had been submitted, a sometimes tedious and messy procedure when a Deir did not know where to begin his search. Furthermore, there was always the possibility one’s birth was not registered at all. This then required the lengthy, oft costly process of having the courts officially recognize one’s existence.

“My father told me Tribune Henaz formally acknowledged me as his son,” Vaeren said. “But he died before he was able to inform Adda where he submitted my birth documents. The Rikara registrar of births yielded nothing. Apparently, there is a law that requires the registration of a birth be done in one’s home fief or province to enable an illegitimate child to inherit. But naught came to light in Tellas either.

“Tellas?”

“The Henaz family seat in Glanthar. It was several months before I finally tracked down the documents in Evinor.”

Ranael frowned. Evinor was the capital city of the seaward fief. “Why did he submit the documents there? Do the Henazes have property in the capital?”

“Nay. The bulk of their holdings are in Tellas and some neighboring towns. I too wondered why he registered my birth in Evinor. But I have since learned his parents and brothers opposed his acknowledgment of me. He probably feared they would dispose of all proof of my kinship to him. I dare say he hoped the documents would be safe from attempts to remove them. He banked on the fact that the registrars of the fief capitals are less susceptible to bribery or intimidation.”

Ranael nodded. The registrars of Ylandre’s metropolises were under more stringent scrutiny than those in the smaller cities, towns, and villages. Unless one was a very powerful citizen, it was almost impossible to retrieve all the copies of a legal document stored in a major government archive. To make such a request usually roused suspicion of wrongful intent and could invite lawful intervention.

“Were his fears justified?” Ranael asked curiously.

“Almost as soon as news of his passing reached them.” Vaeren’s smile turned somewhat bitter. “The registrars of Tellas and Evinor told me Henaz solicitors approached them within days of my sire’s death and asked for the documents. The Evinor registrar denied his office had them when the solicitor requested all copies be turned over to my sire’s family. He’d taken note of my bastardy when he retrieved my records from the archives. He suspected a desire to block me from making a claim on his estate. Which they did anyway and continue to this day.”

“To this day? So he did leave you property.”

“If he prepared a will, they probably destroyed it. My claim stems solely from his recognition of me as his son. But without a will, only the courts can decide if I have a right to his estate. Unfortunately, Clan Henaz is the preeminent family of Tellas. Think you the local magistrates will pay heed to—much less side with—an impecunious commoner born out of wedlock?” Vaeren shook his head. “I have my sire’s name but neither the fortune nor prominence to wage what will undoubtedly be a protracted legal battle for whatever he bequeathed me.”

“So you let them win?” Ranael said incredulously. A moment later, his cheeks warmed over the realization that he was upset on Vaeren’s behalf.

Vaeren regarded him searchingly. At length, he softly pointed out, “It isn’t a matter of letting them. I don’t have any viable options at the moment. Not on my current earnings and certainly not at my present rate of advancement. Or lack thereof.”

This last was said with some resentment. Ranael became aware once more just how privileged he was. And that again he’d emphasized Vaeren was not.

“That was thoughtless of me,” he ruefully murmured. “My apologies, Commander.”

“I took no offense. And it’s Vaeren. You’re entitled to address me by name, Dyhar.”

Ranael pursed his lips, belatedly realizing they’d somehow ventured into territory not usually covered by mere acquaintances, let alone upon first meeting. Yet Vaeren did not appear uncomfortable about making such personal revelations or that his humble background had become even more apparent.

“Very well, Vaeren,” Ranael agreed. He extended his hand over the table. “But only if you dispense with the titles and honorifics when we aren’t on duty.”

Vaeren smiled slightly and took the proffered hand in a warm, strong grip.

“As you wish, Ranael.”

Ranael decided he liked the way his name rolled off his second’s tongue.