David gave Lane a head start of a couple of days, and followed her then to Wardshire, to ride alongside the coach that carried her and her wardrobe. A second coach carried a group of her servants, as befitting for a countess. Guards rode ahead and behind them.
It didn’t take long for Lane to get tired of riding inside the coach, which was why she had brought the little roan mare. Soon she and David were riding side by side.
“The handmaids are all talking about us,” Lane said, trying to sound conversational.
“That was to be expected.”
“What your brother wrote – is Duke George Louis really your ex-lover?” she asked carefully. “Or was that just a jest?”
David sighed inwardly. Aloud he said: “George is the kind of man who wants to try everything in life once, and everyone, too. And he gets bored fast, usually. I was one of the few people he wanted to see more than twice. I used to think it meant something. Until he turned two of my – of our – best friends over to the Inquisition for sodomy. I left court after that.”
“When was that?” Lane asked.
David frowned. “Almost ten years ago. Right before he was crowned a duke.”
“Would you mind announcing our engagement at Deva? Or at least a courtship?”
David stared at her. “What?” was all he managed.
“Duke George Louis threatened to turn me over to the Inquisition, too,” Lane said calmly. “For the same reason as your friends. That’s why I had to do as he said when he ordered me to go looking for a living werewolf. A young, childless widow who won’t marry again is exactly the kind of woman the Inquisition loves to stone to death.”
“I don’t think the Inquisition will rule here much longer,” David pointed out.
“You’re very optimistic,” Lane said. “It could take years to beat them. And I’m not saying we should announce a wedding date.”
David thought about it. His mother would be mad at him for not saying anything, but beyond that, he could see no drawbacks of announcing that he and Lane were courting. It would be safer for both of them, and they at least wouldn’t have to lie to a partner.
“We’ll make quite a couple,” he said. “Court’ll love that bit of scandal.”
He saw Lane relax. “Thank you,” she said.
“Should I propose at court?”
He grinned when Lane blushed at the thought. “Five frozen hells, no,” she said, but then paused. “All though... There’ll be trouble either way.”
“What sort of trouble?”
“Count deVale has sworn to challenge anyone to a duel who dares to court me,” Lane sighed. “He decided I’m his, no matter how I feel about that. And Wardshire is big enough that plenty of other lords have just been waiting for me to drop the whole mourning charade.”
“Most of them higher-born than me, I take it.”
“Some,” Lane said.
“Oh well,” David shrugged. “Do it like that girl from the myth – can’t remember her name. The one who declared she’d only marry a man who could beat her on a hunt or something like that.”
“Atalante? She challenged all her suitors to a footrace.”
“Well, then you’d have to marry Nathan,” David grinned. “Stick with a hunt, and keep ‘em coming.”
“Right you are,” Lane laughed. “That might actually be fun,” she admitted, then grinned at him. “What if you can’t beat me? Atalante killed all the suitors who lost to her.”
“Guess I’ll have to try really hard then,” David replied.
Lane looked away. Most men she knew would never have even entertained the idea that a woman might beat them. “You’ll not expect me to stay at home, will you?” she still asked, softer.
To her relief, David rolled his eyes at that question. “You really think I’m that kind of guy?”
“Most men seem to be,” Lane pointed out. DeVale certainly seemed to think that he needed to save her from her wild adventures before she got herself killed.
“I’m not all that eager to continue the hunt for living werewolves on my own.”
“What about your family?” Lane asked, surprised by that statement.
David sighed. “Father won’t go back on the job as long as there’s even a chance he’ll have to kill someone. The situation with Greg shook him pretty hard. And Andrew was getting ready to quit even before it all went to hell, I’m not taking him now, where everything is even more dangerous.”
“Oh, but my life you’re willing to risk?” Lane asked, half-joking.
“You’re not quitting,” David said calmly. “You’re like me. You’ve got nowhere to go but out there. So we might as well go together.”
Lane had nothing to say to that. David was right, of course. “We do make quite a pair,” she muttered.
But if she had to marry – if she had to spend the rest of her life at a man’s side, then the life David had just described was one she could live with. Even be happy with.
David escorted Lane all the way to her hotel, even though it meant riding past his parent’s house and then going back. His father and Andrew were quite surprised to see him, but happy, too. The family had never been this spread out before.
David spent the next few days getting ready for his appearance at court. He and Lane had agreed on a specific date: Three days from now, Duke Desmarais would host the annual “Flower Dance”. It was mostly a debutantes’ ball – earlier in the day, those young ladies of noble birth who didn’t make the travel to the imperial court of the Roi Solei at Rambouillet were presented to the viceroy. As Loegrion was a rather unimportant colony, each year only a scarce handful of girls with powerful sponsors were invited to present themselves to the Roi Solei, and all others instead attended the viceroy’s ball. With the growing nationalism amongst the Loegrion nobility, the Flower Dance had grown in importance, too – several families didn’t even try to present their sons and daughters in Rambouillet.
David and Lane had agreed on the Flower Ball because it was a purely social event, where their announcement hopefully wouldn’t get in the way of any politics. And Lane as a young noble widow and David as an eligible heir and bachelor were both invited anyway.
So David spent a day picking new clothes. Like his mother had suggested, Thoko’s mother Yamikani had already freshly braided his hair right before he’d left Courtenay – close to the scalp, a practical and elegant style. Yamikani really was very good.
He spent another half day composing a note to his mother, too, to let her know what he was about to do. It was harder to put in writing than it should have been, but knowing that the Church was reading his mail made him second-guess every word.
“Did we miss something?” his father asked at dinner after the first new suits were delivered.
“I’ll try to talk some sense into George Louis,” David said and explained about Nathan’s letter. “Also, I’ll probably propose to Lane.”
Andrew inhaled his wine at that, while Bram just raised his eyebrows.
“Now I feel like I’ve missed a lot,” his father said dryly.
David shrugged. “The plan is not actually to marry,” he said, and explained the charges that George Louis might bring to bear against Lane.
Andrew frowned at him. Unlike their parents, he knew that Nathan hadn’t called George Louis his ex-lover in jest.
“What if you can’t back out again later?” their father asked. “I’m not saying I’m against such an arrangement. But if it’s not something you actually want...”
“It’ll be safer,” David said, and took a deep breath. “For both of us. We don’t know how the future will turn out. Also, Lane and I are friends. And we won’t have to lie at each other.”
His father was quiet for a long time after that. Finally, he poured himself more wine, and said: “You never mentioned.”
“What was there to say?” David gave back.
“You knew?” Bram asked, looking at Andrew. “You don’t look surprised.”
“Nathan told me,” Andrew said, shrugging.
“And Nathan knew how?” Bram wanted to know. “And how long?”
David hated this whole conversation, but he pushed on anyway. “Nathan has known since he was ten because he has loved being a pain in my arse since he was old enough to walk. Saw me kiss George Louis once. Greg was with him, but I suppose he was too young to understand or remember. They both thought it was terribly funny and told Andrew, who luckily was old enough to make sure they didn’t scream it out in front of the rest of the court.”
“Does Imani know?”
“Don’t know,” David sighed. “She’s said some things that made me wonder.”
“But you never talked to her either?”
“There was nothing to talk about,” David repeated.
Bram didn’t look convinced, of course.
“First Greg, now you,” he said softly. “I just wish I knew where I went wrong, that neither of you felt they could talk to me.”
“I knew I could talk to you, Dad,” David said, without looking at him. “I just don’t want to talk about this.”
Bram looked at Andrew, who smiled wryly. “He told me, when I turned eighteen, that I should consider myself heir to the name and responsible for carrying on the line. That’s about the most he ever said to me about the topic, in case you are wondering.” He pointed his fork at David. “You’ll be a count.”
“Not in my own right.”
“Your kids would be, though.”
“Not going to have kids,” David gave back, more sharply than he had intended. “Yours could be,” he added, calmer. “I think Lane would be okay with that.”
“Right,” Andrew muttered, and to David’s relief, both he and Bram dropped the topic.