The bartender put his meaty hand over Cain’s glass. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough, Cap?”
Alcohol was whispering a soft siren’s song in his veins, but it wasn’t what he was looking for. There was a note, a pitch that he needed it to reach—that was still beyond his reach. Cain looked the bartender in the eye, gaze clear and steady “I’m not a kid, Ford. I know when I’ve had too much.”
“S’long as you’re sure, Cap.”
Cain nodded once, a piece of a smile tugging at his mouth. “You know better than me that this stuff isn’t half as strong as the ‘shine we made in the Rebellion.”
Laughing, the bartender lifted his hand and allowed Cain to take his prematurely aborted sip. “Y’know,” he began as he turned from Cain to the wall of liquors and spirits in the Officers’ Bar, “I don’t ever remember seein’ you drink back in the camps.”
“As if you actually needed to drink the stuff to get a buzz,” Cain said, smiling around the edge of the glass.
“Just stand downwind.”
Cain swiveled in his seat. “Hey Tayborn. Going off-duty?”
Tayborn tugged on his wide hat. “Yes, sir, and ready to drown my sorrows in the sorry swill the nobles call hard liquor.” That got a laugh out of everyone within earshot. “ ‘Sides, guarding a princess of the realm is hard work.”
Cain raised his glass to that. Then he gestured for the bartender to fill him up again. “Ford…why don’t you just leave me the bottle.” At the bartender’s hesitation, he threw in a moxish , “I’m good for it.”
The bartender grinned. “Better be. It’s on the queen’s dime.”
“C’mon I’ve already gone through half,” he said reasonably. “It’d take three to get me wobbling on my legs let alone drunk.”
“It better. It’d be a poor reflection on the Personal Guard if their captain couldn’t hold his liquor. Palace Guard would never let you live it down.”
Cain snorted. “I’d put any one of my men against the entire Palace Guard any day.”
“Even PJ?” Who was the newest member of the Personal Guard and the youngest man to ever make Lieutenant Commander in the Queen’s Army. Cain had quickly snatched him up.
“That boy drinks like a fish.”
“Like a fish?”
“Like a fish.” Cain finished off his drink as if to emphasize the point. He poured himself another drink with an easy, steady hand. “Don’t let the kid fool you. He could drink us all under the table.”
The bartender laughed, a loud hearty laugh that shook a deceptively soft looking gut, then turned to tend the officers in the bar.
Cain finished the drink, pulled out a generous tip, then slipped out the bar with the bottle in hand. Thoughtful consternation pulled at his face. He’d lied about one bottle not being enough to get him tipsy—and probably more than that—but he knew he could hide that long enough to get to the officers’ barracks. He hadn’t lied about one bottle not being enough: The song, the tone, the note he was looking for was not going to be found at the bottom of this bottle. It had been a long time since one bottle had been enough to find it. It had been a long time since two bottles could find it, particularly since his introduction to Rebellion ‘shine. And so the question was where he could get the rest of what he needed.
He began to catalogue likely locations with the same methodical thoroughness he brought to bear on everything.
Something was pounding. A low basso pounding that was constant, insistent, and would…not…stop. His body seemed to have a rhythm and was throbbing in time.
He was lying in wretched agony for several long moments before his brain was able to sort out what was going on: Of course his body was throbbing in time to the pounding; the pounding was his heart.
Cain groaned and tried to shift on the bed. A wave of pain rolled through him, obliterating all other input about where he was, why he was there or who he was with.
“Good morning, Captain Cain.”
Cain’s eyes snapped open, but quickly closed. Not before he caught a damning glimpse of ivory skin, dark hair and darker eyes.
“If I’m not mistaken, last night you assured me that you were managing your drunkenness perfectly well on your own.”
He knew that tone—silken and mild—but against his abused senses it felt like sandpaper. He slowly brought his hands up to his face though it was really his ears he wanted to cover. At least for the moment. “What are you doing in my room, Pr—Your Highness?” He couldn’t remember running into her the night before—couldn’t remember much about it at all—but this penchant of royal princesses for playing mother hen couldn’t be less welcome than it was at that moment. She’s spending too much time with DG, he thought sourly.
“We aren’t in your room, Captain Cain.”
And finally the other things his senses had been trying to tell him made it past the filter of his hangover—the softness of the bed, the vastness of the space around him, the silkiness along his back.
Cain shot up, scrambling away from the princess. Only Azkadellia’s iron grip on his wrist kept him from going over the bed. Her icy skin woke him even more, but it brought the headache back in a nauseating rush.
“I’ve never told anyone this, but it’s long been a goal of mine to never have to clean someone’s sick up—or my own. It’s one of those few things that shouldn’t be done with magic,” Azkadellia calmly explained as she slid toward him, using her grip on his wrist to both hold him and pull herself in. His stomach twitched then jumped when her icy hand came in contact with the bare skin. “So just this one time and, admittedly, on my own behalf…”
Light shone briefly, turning her hand translucent and infusing his entire lower abdomen with light.
She took her hand away and met his bloodshot eyes. “You’ll have to deal with the next one on your own.”
He muttered a thank you that sounded ungrateful to his own ears. After clearing his throat a couple of times—and nearly gagging on his own sour taste—he asked, “What happened last night?”
Azkadellia sat back, resting her weight on one hand. “From what I can tell you got falling down drunk. Except you wouldn’t fall down.”
That sounded about right. “And how did I end up in your rooms?”
“Clearly you’ve had more to drink than I previously thought,” was her response, eyebrows creeping toward her hairline. “I won’t ask you to move too much, Captain Cain. Doing so might make you nauseous again and then I would have to renege on my promise. We are in one of the many palace guest rooms. I did my best to steer you toward the least occupied area of the palace, but you didn’t make it easy.”
“And why you?” It came out more harshly than he’d intended but he wanted to know. “I would have made it back to my room eventually.”
“But not before coming across someone who would recognize your inebriation for what it was. As I did. All things considered, you seem rather ungrateful.”
“You should have left me,” he groused.
“So that someone else could find you?” He eyebrows crept higher. “Your men, for instance. Or perhaps the Queen or the Prince Consort. It’s not uncommon for either of them to be working late into the night.” The question hovered on her face, their eyes locked until she dropped them suddenly. “Or perhaps your son or DG.”
“You forgot Glitch and Raw,” he added, twisting the knife.
“I didn’t, point in fact. I’d actually considered taking you to one of both of them, but thought better of it.” She brought her gaze up to meet his. “Raw, I believe, already knows about your demons and while he is a courageous and honorable Viewer, I feared what you might do to him.”
“Ambrose, I thought, might unintentionally hurt you. I was, I thought, the only person that I could think of who could do for you what needed to be done. Perhaps there are others but it wasn’t exactly the ideal—”
“What are you saying, Highness?” Cain asked, eyes narrow and back stiff. “What happened last night?”
It was Azkadellia who was startled. She drew herself up, pulling her legs close. “Don’t you remember, Captain?”
Cain made a sound of exasperation that sent a fresh wave of pain pulsing through his head. “Obviously not.”
She seemed to consider and it was all Cain could do not to order her to spit it out. She was still a princess of the realm, and had apparently helped him last night. The question was how. And where was his shirt. And shoes and socks now that he was thinking about it.
Cain closed his eyes to mentally take stock of his state of undress. He’d been wearing his coat, hat and jacket; a shirt, undershirt and trousers; underwear, socks and boots. Plus there was his gun belt, suspenders and the various other paraphernalia in his pockets. He’d been stripped down to the trousers. There was nothing in his pockets. Cain took a deep breath—the top trouser button was undone.
That could have happened on its own, he reassured himself. But his gut lurched anyway.
“Princess,” he asked, eyes still closed. He was afraid of what he’d see on her face. “What did I—What did you do for me?” he amended, remembering her words.
“You really don’t remember.”
“No, Your Highness, I don’t.”
“Azkadellia.” He’d meant a growl but it was a groan that came instead. “Princess, please…I need to know.”
She nodded, expression still thoughtful. “I agree, Captain, but I think it best if you discover it on your own.”
Cain let his head drop back. It rapped the high headboard just behind him. Pain shot through him, obliterating all his other senses. The waves of pain that had crashed through him went rogue, surging up and through, huge and now out of sync with his heartbeat. It was a long time before he could open his eyes. Azkadellia was looking at him when he did. “I think you’ve been hiding here long enough, don’t you Captain? It’s time to face the day.”
The idea sent fresh feeling of nausea through him that had little to do with his hangover. But she was right. He couldn’t hide here foreer. Exhaling, Cain nodded slowly feeling his brain move independent of his skull.
“Then I have one more gift for you.” Azkadellia pushed herself closer to him then knelt up. She laced her hand, icy cold still, on his forehead and for a moment it stilled the roiling pain. “There,” she said as she took her hand away, “now you won’t cause a stir.”
Cain frowned wondering what she could have done. He still felt like he’d gone three rounds with a pack of Papay but she seemed serenely satis—
A mark caught Cain’s eye as the princess turned from him. He caught her arm. “What’s that? On your neck.” It looked like a bruise even to his addled senses.
Azkadellia placed her hand on the exact spot, her thumb awkwardly covering what the high collar of her of her shirt did not, her hand inverted. “This mark?” she asked. The question in her voice was barely acknowledged in her eyes. Light flashed. “There is no mark, Captain Cain.”
And when she took her hand away there wasn’t one.
Stretching, she climbed over his outstretched legs to stand beside the bed. “Really, Captain, servants are already awake. Others are soon to follow.” A smile pulled at a corner of her mouth. “You don’t want all my hard work to go to waste, do you?”
Cain pushed himself so that he was sitting up on his own. “Your Highness…please just tell me. I have to know what happened last night. It’s been a long time since I’ve—I just need to know, what did I do…” He couldn’t decide whether he should finish that with “to you” or “with you.”
“No, Captain, I can’t grant you that request. Perhaps when you can finally remember on your own, when you can tell me what happened, then you will deem yourself safe for another drink. Until then, this awful not knowing will be a warning far better than any I or anyone else could give.” She turned from him, long night braid sliding across her back. Cain noticed the gray satin pants set for the first time—that he could see and sense more of her presence now than he had in the last two years. Then she pulled her dressing gown off the back of a chair, drab and oversized, and put it on, hiding it all.
Next to her robe, on a low table, were his shirt and undershirt neatly folded, and his socks and boots on the floor. His coat, jacket, hat, suspenders, gun belt and other things were in the seat of the chair. “You do that, Princess?”
Azkadellia rolled her eyes. “No, Captain Cain, members of the Eastern Guild stopped by last night and offered to fold your clothes for me. You’re just procrastinating. It’s been a long night and I’d like to see my own bed.”
Which sparked something else that had been bothering him. “How did you slip your guard?”
“You think I can’t slip my guard whenever I choose? It’s a family talent, Captain. Now to the washroom. Last warning.”
Cain shuddered, eyes falling closed. It was all a delusion caused by the drink. DG trying to save him from himself was likely. Azkadellia had problems of her own. When he woke up he’d find himself in a stinking heap in a corner of his room, surrounded by the broken pieces of the things he’d destroyed in his drunkenness. He’d pick himself up and drag himself into the washroom where his chalky skin, bloodshot eyes and half-crazed appearance would accuse him. The shower would bring color back to his skin, several glasses of water from the tap would help clear his bloodshot eyes, and a good comb and shave would handle the rest. He’d go down to the kitchen, pick up a cup of coffee and a small handful of painkillers, avoid DG and the temptation of a magical instant fix, and go about his day, normal as he could manage.
The Princess Azkadellia was still there when he opened his eyes, managing to look both annoyed and unconcerned.
He picked himself up of the bed and dragged himself into the washroom. Where lightly flushed skin and clear eyes greeted him in the looking glass. Cain’s eyes searched the glass. And caught sight of the princess sitting on the edge of the bed, shoulders down and her face in her hands. Cain spun around.
A wave of dizziness sent him stumbling against the sink as fresh pain pulsed behind his eyes, forcing them closed.
She was gone when he got them open again.
“Hey, Dad.” Jeb walked up behind his father and slapped him roundly on the back.
Cain winced. “Hey yourself,” he grumbled.
“What’s wrong with you?” He sat, dropping his coffee mug with an audible thud.
Jeb frowned. “Dad, you all right?”
“Just had a long night.”
“Hey there, Cap!”
Cain looked up just in time to see Tayborn come up behind him before he was slapped on the back behind the big man. He winced. “Hey there yourself, Clayt.”
The guard sat down across from both Cains with a clatter of metal tray, heavy ceramic dishes.
Frowning, Jeb gave his father a long look. “Some night there, Dad.”
Tayborn chuckled. “I’d’ve said it was that bottle of hard stuff the captain snuck out of the Officers’ Bar last night, but you look and smell as fresh as the sky over Finaqua.”
“Long night?” Jeb threw in sardonically.
Cain rolled his eyes. Tayborn chuckled again.
Cain put his hand up to forestall the slap to his back and got a hearty handshake. Then a slap to the back came anyway.
“Good morning, Captain Cain. Guys.” A chorus of mornings and heys followed.
Trying to keep his eyes from crossing, Cain turned. “Hello PJ.”
The young man smiled. He indicated the space next to Cain on the end of their bench. “Mind if I sit here?”
“Take the whole thing, I’m gonna sit next to Tayborn. Less dangerous that way.”
Tayborn and Jeb laughed. Sherman and PJ looked on in confusion. “Been dealing with royals and got a headache, boys. Don’t mind me. Haven’t had my coffee.” Which seemed to make Tayborn and Jeb happy. “All right…overnight report. Starting with Princess Azkadellia.”
“You don’t want to hear what trouble DG—”
“Princess DG,” Cain automatically corrected PJ. Clearly the princess had gotten to him.
“Princess DG got herself into?”
Sherman set his coffee down with a bang. Cain tried not to wince. “You haven’t been with us too long, Pete. Whatever the Princess DG has gotten herself into we’ll be hearing about it most of the day.” That got a laugh out of everyone except Cain.
“Are we talking about DG?”
“Princess DG,” four voices chorused before Cain could.
“Ha ha, boys. Hines, siddown before you make my headache worse.”
Hines nodded sagely as he sat down beside Jeb. “So we are talking about Princess DG.”
Cain lifted a hand to his head. Sure he looked alright, but his body knew better. “Trying not to, actually, not that it’s doing me any good. I was trying for a report on the other princess.”
Hines already had an egg-dipped piece of toast in his mouth when he said, “Preddy goo.” He swallowed. “Pretty good. For her.”
Across the table, Tayborn nodded.
“She paced her garden for part of the night, but she dropped off around one or two in the morning and was still sleeping when I traded off with de Silva.” Shrugging he dipped his toast in his runny eggs again. “Best I’ve seen her in a while.”
Cain grunted. So either she’d been with him all night and, what, planted the image of herself for Hines to see? Or she spent part of her time in her own suite and part of it with him. But that really work. Cain knew that he was neither a sleepy nor a silent drunk, not if he really got at it. Which he must have done if he couldn’t remember what happened the night before.
“Ahamo,” he bit out. His men chuckled, but continued with their informal report. It might help if he was paying attention, the Prince Consort being his assignment after all.
Cain trailed the Prince Consort into the breakfast room and took up a discreet post that would still allow him to be of service to the man if he needed it. He gave a brief nod to the other two men in the room. And ignored DG. She was trying to do the same, and doing better than usual.
“Good morning, Dad.”
Azkadellia had no trouble ignoring him. He was trying to do the same. And not doing very well at all.