“Gene Moran, Bringer of Storms,” the crowd of Advisors chanted. “Beat the Peers at their own game.”
The rain turned the sand-strewn floor to mush and obscured my brother and his opponent. I shivered in my grey cloak. The thatched roof covering the stand reserved for senior Advisors and their favoured guests protected me from the worse of the elements, but thunder rattled the wooden beams and reverberated through my bones.
The storms had barely paused in the six weeks we’d spent travelling from round to interminable round of the Contest, allowing Gene to show off his charm and athletic prowess in every corner of the Realm. I blamed temperamental summer weather, but spectators had started to believe the myth my twin brother had built around himself.
A particularly bright flash of lightning illuminated the racetrack, just in time to show Gene crossing the finish line several feet ahead of Sam Trewellick, the competitor from Bernicia.
The crowd’s cheers and chants intensified. I shouted alongside them. All the “Bringer of Storms” talk was nonsense, and Gene would be even more arrogant than usual if he won . Even so, family was family. And deep down, I wanted this victory as much as he did.
“Poetry next, Tara. Are you ready?” Gene’s telepathic voice echoed in my mind.
“You worry about your rounds, let me worry about mine,” I mentally replied.
His opponent, Sam, looked pale. Poetry was one of Sam’s strengths, but every Advisor in the Realm had learnt that few people could stand against Gene in any discipline.
Usually, the cheers would have been equally strong for both Advisor finalists, but Gene had positioned himself as the person to beat the Peers and prove we were the equals of the people we supported and advised. All I’d ever wanted in life was to be the power behind our rulers’ thrones. My brother seemed to want more.
Gene strode to one of the two writing desks on the arena’s central podium, picked up a quill and a piece of parchment, then nodded at me. From my place in the stands, I looked into his eyes, and secretly let my mind take control of his. We never let others know about our rare connection at the best of times, but it was essential no one learnt we were using it to cheat in the Contest.
Perhaps I should have felt bad about breaking the rules, but it barely felt like cheating. My brother and I had never really thought of ourselves as separate people.
“The topic for the Poetry Round is the Annual Sacrifice,” the assessor intoned. “You have thirty minutes to compose and ten to present.”
The Annual Sacrifice was an unusually interesting topic and a politically loaded one. On one night in June, the otherwise oppressed Commoners nominated their most hated Peer and had him (or occasionally, her) put to the flames. It was an ancient tradition, strictly upheld by all and intended as a check on absolute power.
For the poem, I settled on alternating verses. One half focused on the pain of the chosen Peer and his guilty memories of the things he’d done, told in a solemn, plodding metre. The other, rhyming and with a bouncing tone, followed a girl in her late teens dancing the night away, warmed by the murderous fire and barely conscious of its meaning. The once solemn and still deadly event had become a festive occasion for the Commoners.
Words came easily to me. They always did. I half-closed my eyes and let my lines—the grim ones and the light-hearted ones—flow into Gene’s mind and out through his pen.
“Time’s up, I’m afraid,” the judge announced, seemingly mere seconds later.
“No need to apologise,” Gene replied. “I can’t wait to share this with the world.”
I pulled my mind back from his and listened approvingly as Gene declaimed the poem. I’d been proud of my words, but they sounded far better on his tongue than in my head.
The assessor clapped when Gene finished, and most of the onlookers joined in. “Splendid. Just splendid.”
He glowed from the praise, and so did I. We drew little meaningful distinction between his success and mine. It wasn’t as if it was one-sided. He could take me over and allow me to achieve feats of athletic prowess as easily as I could make him seem like a poetic intellectual. When we combined my brains and his strength and reflexes, there was nothing we couldn’t do.
“Good work, Sis,” he whispered in my head. “We’re getting there. We’ve got this.”
That just left the duelling, and in that discipline, Gene was unbeaten after thirteen rounds of the Contest. Sam didn’t stand a chance.
Even those with little interest in the more cerebral challenges tended to enjoy the cruel beauty of the duels, and the arena had filled up with spectators, drinks in hand.
All the onlookers would have made me nervous, but Gene lapped up the attention, bowing to the crowd and winking at attractive observers.
The great bell on York Place’s tower rang, and the fight began. Gene swept around the courtyard in a wide arc, luring his opponent in and then driving him away, playing to the crowd.
I glared at him, urging him to stop wasting time and taking risks and finish what we’d come to do. I didn’t risk mind-merging—putting my mal-coordinated brain in control of Gene’s body while he duelled would be disastrous. But perhaps he heard or sensed my thoughts, for seconds later, he leapt back, only to drive forward and send his rival sprawling. With the elegance of a young duke, he bent from the hip and touched the tip of his sword to the other man’s neck.
The crowd burst into rapturous applause, and though Gene went through the motions of helping his defeated opponent to his feet, he was surely barely aware of anything but the waves of admiration and adoration surrounding him.
“Ladies and Gentlemen of the Advisors, we are pleased to announce that Gene Moran, Champion of Mercia, has shown the strength, intelligence and talent necessary to be selected as this year’s Champion of the Advisors.” The announcer’s voice was suffused with genuine joy. “I’m sure you will all join me in wishing him well when he competes against the Champion of the Peers, Lord Longville, the Duke of Dumnonia, in tomorrow’s final.”
Cheers erupted around the stadium. Right on cue, lightning cracked across the sky.
For a few seconds, Gene just stood in the centre of the arena, grinning silently. For all his confident words over the preceding months, he seemed shocked to see his dream become a reality.
And then he took a breath and became the Champion of the Advisors.
“I take no pride or pleasure in beating my fellow Advisors, but now I’m your Champion, I intend to humiliate the Peers. I’ll show them we can be more than just backroom men and women, more than just dry thinkers with no verve or showmanship or physical prowess. I’ll win the Contest for the Advisors for the first time.”
If Gene won, he’d earn the equivalent of several years’ salary, which he’d promised to share with me. Despite only being sixteen, he’d be catapulted straight into one of the best junior Advisor roles. A new mark would be added to his arm—the Crown and Laurel, one of the rarest of all markings—which would brand him as a man to watch for each and every promotion.
But the money and the glory were just a sideshow to Gene. All he really cared about was beating the Peers at their own game.
The rest of his speech was loud and long. He started to hint at overthrowing the Separation Treaty, until I forcibly mind-merged with him and toned his words down to the excitable ramblings of a talented Advisor flushed with success, and not the declarations of a dangerous radical.
He had to shout to make himself heard over the on-going rumblings of the storm, but the bolts of lightning above his head only added to his appeal.
“Gene Moran, Bringer of Storms.” The chant rose up again. Where had they heard it? How had it spread around the country? It was a double-edged title, but this crowd chanted it with joy in their hearts.
I’d laughed at the sobriquet all summer, but at that moment, the lightning almost seemed to emanate from Gene, mirroring the flashes of his sword when he’d duelled.
That evening, I walked into the Banqueting House with my shoulders tightly back and a fixed smile on my face. My waist-length, dark hair—generally regarded as my best feature, even if it sometimes felt like taking care of a pet—sat heavily on my head where it had been curled and pinned. My dress pinched my skin and flustered my mind.
The Separation Treaty, which decreed how Advisors and Peers were meant to behave in relation to each other, required us to wear grey for all official and formal functions, but my voluminous satin skirt was really a flattering off-white, while my low-cut bodice glowed silver in the candlelight. The sleeves began below my shoulders (low enough to show my Advisor Mark as well as the shape of my body), and reached just below my elbow. Marissa had worked her magic even more than usual.
Some of my stiffness faded at the sight of the Banqueting Hall’s polished marble floor, painted ceiling and high windows, and my smile grew more genuine at the taste of the fine Kentish wine the footman offered me. I closed my eyes for a moment and soaked in the sound of the chamber band.
“Just think, Tara. The sons of all the most important families in the Realm gathered in one place. And we’re not merely grudging invitees, but guests of honour.” My mother’s voice shook me out of my reverie.
Come morning, Gene would be the centre of attention as usual, but for tonight, my mother had focused all of her ambition on me. As far she was concerned, half the point of getting Gene into the Contest final was getting me access to the most prestigious social event of the year—the perfect chance to find the perfect husband. As the sister of the Champion of the Advisors, I’d be a much more appealing prospect. Gene had done his bit for the family name and reputation. The least I could do was smile and simper like they’d taught me at Ethelridge.
I shivered at the thought. Ethelridge and Waverley had both been my mother’s idea. She’d raided every penny of our father’s savings, called in every favour people owed her and every bit of patronage she possessed. Gene had secured a place at the academy where they trained future leaders of the country—Peers and top Advisors both—to plot, preen, and fight. I’d joined the finishing school where they trained the wives of the future leaders of the country to seduce, swoon, and serve.
“I’ve just been introduced to the Grand Secretary for the Exchequer,” my mother continued. “Such a lovely man. And his son, Patrick, is around your age and has all of his father’s charm. The two of them are over there. Do come over and say hello.”
I smiled at my mother, trying not to laugh. She was only trying to help. She’d been plotting a prestigious marriage for me practically from the moment I was born. Her enthusiasm had only intensified now I was sixteen and actually old enough for a wedding.
Or at least, old enough in theory. With a little help from Gene and Marissa on the physical rounds, I’d passed my Examination and qualified as a true Advisor a few weeks previously. The thought of starting work in the autumn and exercising that sort of power thrilled me in a way no eligible young man had ever managed.
York Place treated single female Advisors just the same as their male counterparts, and like the infamous Erin Stratham, the Chief Vizier, we could rise right through the ranks. But the moment a female Advisor accepted a proposal of marriage, she had two weeks to leave her job. It wasn’t a fate I wanted any time soon.
Patrick proved to be everything I’d come to expect of an Advisor. Dark-hair, medium-build, dressed in impeccably smart grey robes. Not unattractive, but entirely unremarkable. His arm was marked with a crossed sword and pen, identical to the ones Gene and I bore, which showed us all to have been born into Advisor families. But Patrick had three stars in place of our single ones, proving he’d achieved the rank of a third order Advisor. Below them was a tiny rendering of a pile of coins, in recognition of his father’s exalted position.
His eyes lingered on me for longer than mere politeness demanded. “Would you like to dance?”
My mother smiled radiantly at Patrick then gave me a pointed look.
“Perhaps later,” I muttered. “Right now, I need to find my friend.”
I tracked Marissa down on one of the balconies, staring into the crowd while devouring a small cup of tea and a huge slice of lemon cake.
She’d been the one good thing about Ethelridge. As the only child of the Grand Secretary for War, my best friend wasn’t subject to the desperate need to prove herself that assailed me. She made the most of that freedom, doing as little work as possible, sneaking into neighbouring villages to seduce the sons and daughters of farmers and blacksmiths, and pushing the sumptuary laws that decreed how Peers and Advisors were meant to dress to their limits.
For the ball, she had piled her wild blonde hair—an inheritance from her mother and so different from the usual Advisor brunettes—neatly up on her head. She’d even consented to wear Advisor grey, for once, but the close-fitting skirt and pared-back bodice bordered on the scandalous, even compared to my own risqué outfit. The long, thick sleeves that unfashionably covered her shoulders looked like an incongruous attempt to inject decorum into the look, but they actually represented her usual determination to hide the ship and cannon mark that identified her as her father’s daughter.
“I wondered where you’d got to,” I said. “Not dancing? That’s not like you.”
She smiled, and turned her back on the crowd. “That’s because I don’t need to. I’m not attending as the saucy, expectant little ingénue on the hunt, but as the respectable fiancée of the Champion of the Advisors.”
I grabbed her arm. “You and Gene? When did this happen?”
A surge of emotions I couldn’t quite identify surged through me. Gene and I had first become friends with Marissa aged eight, when her father had been the Governor of Mercia, my father’s ultimate boss. She’d moved away to the capital following his promotion, but we’d exchanged letters for years, until we’d reunited at that godforsaken school. She was the only person I’d ever told about my connection with Gene.
But since we’d all turned sixteen six months previously, she’d spent more time with Gene than with me. Their mutual attraction had been obvious, but both of them had always flirted with everyone.
“Earlier today,” she replied. “He asked my father’s permission, and miracle of miracles, Daddy gave it. I swore Gene to secrecy. I wanted to tell you myself. We won’t be making it public until after he wins. He’ll announce it in his victory speech.”
I frowned. “And if he doesn’t win?”
She drew me into an excited embrace, heedless of my artfully arranged dress and jewellery. “He’ll win. Have a little faith.”
“I have plenty of faith in Gene. I’d just never admit that to him. Anyway, if you’re newly engaged, why aren’t you dancing together?”
She hugged closer to the rails. “Gene needs to get his face seen. That means dancing with everyone but me. And I wasn’t in the mood for that predictable stream of prestigious Advisor boys your mother was trying to subject you to. Father’s been pushing Patrick and Jack and all the others in my direction for years. I’ve had a lucky escape.”
I almost asked how she’d secured invitations in the past, before remembering her father was one of the twenty most powerful Advisors in the country—a fact I always struggled to reconcile with Marissa being my oldest friend. If she’d had a brother, he’d no doubt have been my mother’s first choice for a potential husband for me. If she’d had a brother who’d been anything like her, I’d probably have fallen in love.
A movement on the balcony opposite caught my eye. Someone else watched the dancefloor with rapt attention. Someone tall, with deep red curls and fine bone structure. Someone whose handsome looks and regal bearing made my stomach contract.
“Who’s that?” I whispered to Marissa.
My friend laughed. “Look at you. Sweet little Tara, with no interest in flirtation and seduction, suddenly overcome with lust.”
I scowled to hide the blush rising up my cheeks. “Hardly. I was just curious.”
Marissa took my arm. “Do you really not know who he is? Lord Longville, of course. The Duke of Dumnonia.”
“I don’t pay much attention to Peer gossip,” I replied, hiding embarrassment behind piety.
“He’s the Peer’s Champion. The one Gene has to beat tomorrow.”
I shivered with an odd mix of excitement and foreboding. Unlike the other potential Peer competitors I’d come across, Longville looked like the real deal. From his arrogant eyes to his muscular arms, he reminded me why so many people feared and idolised the Peers in equal measure.
Those lucky enough to have been born into Peer families ruled the Realm unchallenged. But when a Peer wanted to declare war on a rival county or have a rebellious peasant executed, Advisors—the small caste of highly trained people sitting awkwardly between the Peers and the Commoners—drew up the plans, ensured the death warrants were legally binding, and wrote the letters to the Peer’s allies seeking help.
People talked about Peers having the Blood of Fae. I’d always assumed it was a metaphorical way of speaking about their beauty and seductive, persuasive natures. But when I looked at Lord Longville—the scion of a family that had never weakened their blood—I almost believed the old legends about how the Peers had come to our realm across the sea, from a place no ordinary boat could reach.
I’d started to think of my brother as invincible, but perhaps Gene would have a fight on his hands.
“Who’s the girl next to him?” I asked.
Marissa loved gossip, and as the daughter of a high-ranking Advisor, she knew everything there was to know about the major Peers.
The young woman in question was almost at tall as Lord Longville, with similarly pale skin and red hair that reached her waist. I’d have assumed she was his sister, were it not for the fact he had his arm possessively around her.
“Gods, all those female high Peers look the same. But I think it’s Eleanor de Tosny, daughter of the Duke of Deira. I’ve heard rumours that the two of them are engaged.”
I frowned. “Deira and Dumnonia? I thought the two dukedoms hated each other.”
“It’s meant to be a strategic marriage to shore up the new alliance. Lucky break for Eleanor though. I can think of worse ways of serving your family. He’s gorgeous.”
I turned my attention away from the balcony and back to the dancefloor. Gene was dutifully leading the uninspiring daughter of the Grand Secretary for Law—a girl whose long dark plaits and scales of justice mark I vaguely recognised from Ethelridge—around the dancefloor. My brother’s body language told me Marissa had nothing to worry about, but the girl was holding herself slightly too close to his body and stroking his shoulder a little too flirtatiously.
“That bitch is all over him. I won’t be humiliated.” Marissa slammed down her cup of tea, getting angrier by the minute. “I’m going down there.”
I put an arm around her. “No, you’re not. You’re not going to embarrass my brother or yourself with an outburst tonight. I’ll deal with Gene.”
I strode down the stairs, ignoring everyone who tried to catch my eye.
Gene laughed when he saw me marching towards him, and tactfully spun the Law Secretary’s daughter into a nearby chair.
Her initial furious pout faded into open-mouthed fascination at the sight of the two of us together. Our blend of similarity and difference always caught people’s imagination. Our pronounced cheekbones, wide, long-lashed brown eyes and big lips merged feminine softness and masculine angles and left us both looking slightly androgynous, but in a way that seemed to fascinate rather than repel potential admirers. The similarities ended with our figures. I barely reached Gene’s chest, and where his arms looked like they could snap tree trunks in half, mine looked like they could be broken by a strong gust of wind.
Gene’s hair wasn’t as long as mine, but it still skimmed his chin, which made it much longer than most male Advisors. He wore it in the Peer style. It was a deliberate provocation and only just within the bounds of the Separation Treaty and the sumptuary laws. In his full coat, embroidered waistcoat and breeches (grey, grey, and grey), he could almost have passed as some minor northern baron, were it not for his darker hair and complexion.
“Shall we dance?” Gene asked. “Or are you just here to lecture me?”
“I’m here to stop your new fiancée killing you later,” I replied. “But we might as well show this crowd what real dancing looks like.”
Gene took hold of me. His solid, no-nonsense grasp settled my nerves.
“Play Eleanor and Sam,” he called out to the band. I couldn’t tell if he’d had the idea spontaneously or taken it from my head.
“And their minds were as one. She understood all his fears. She was him, he was her. Two bodies, one soul.” I sang the familiar words under my breath.
Our mother had sung the song to us every day as young children. She enjoyed it because it told the tale of the forbidden love between the daughter of a long-ago Duke of Deira and the son of an upstart regional Advisor. The Separation Treaty warned against marriages between Peers and Advisors, but the practice had been frowned upon long before it had come into force.
Gene picked up the song’s chorus. “Their love was fate. Few minds can be merged, few people are as one. Just twins and soulmates. Twins and soulmates.”
I didn’t care about the romantic angle. I’d always found it a comfort to hear a reference to other people with the same power as Gene and I. The power we’d never told anyone but Marissa about, because it was something from myths and songs, not from real life.
Gene took hold of my shoulders, eased my head up, and stared into my eyes. I rose onto tiptoes, tipped my head back further, and opened my eyes wide. None of the ritual was necessary. Gene and I could mind-meld at a distance, with no eye-contact or physical connection. But we both had a taste for the dramatic.
I let our minds merge. Every muscle in my body locked, and my eyes slammed closed. I was nothing, flesh without spirit. The remnants of my consciousness revelled in the sensation of movement, strength and flexibility as Gene’s mind swept me around.
We danced the most intricate steps, travelling the length and breadth of the room, never faltering. He picked me up and spun me round, and I let go and looped around him in a perfect figure of eight.
Sometimes I think that between the two of you I have one fully functioning human being. My otherwise loving mother used to snap the words whenever I fell over or broke a glass or lost my way, and whenever Gene failed a test or got in a fight or threw a temper tantrum.
Perhaps she was right and we really were one person who had separated somewhere between conception and birth. Certainly, we rounded out each other’s strengths and weaknesses perfectly.
I barely registered the rest of the room, but I was dimly conscious that most couples had paused their own dances to watch us. I revelled in the attention.
“Are you going to let me possess you for the dance round, tomorrow?” I teased, silently. “I’m much smoother on the turns than you.”
“Hardly. You’ll make me trip.”
For the finale, Gene scooped me up, held me high in the air by my feet, then dipped me down to the ground. With anyone else, I would’ve panicked and they’d probably have dropped me, but I anticipated his movements and positioned myself accordingly.
He placed me lightly down on the floor, where I landed in an elegant curtsey while he bowed. The crowd clapped, then the next song started, and people resumed their own dancing.
“Now for goodness sake, go and find Marissa,” I demanded, shaking my head at my laughing brother. “And congratulations, by the way. I trust I’ll be maid of honour.”
“I’m glad you’re pleased. I promised I’d let her break the news.” Gene grinned and walked off in the direction of the balcony.
“You dance rather well for an Advisor,” someone said, taking a firm hold of my arm.
I turned around to see Lord Longville, smirking in a way that exemplified everything wrong with the Peers.
“I dance extremely well, for anyone,” I replied, daring him to contradict me after the display I’d just given.
“You must be Gene’s little sister.”
“Big sister, actually. I was born an hour earlier.”
“I see.” I sensed his eyes inspecting me. “You’re almost identical. Give or take about two feet, ten stone, and curves in place of muscle.”
Despite his infuriating words and mannerisms, up close, his face, hair and body all demanded attention even more than they had at a distance. They triggered something primordial in my body that made me want to prostrate myself before him. Instead, as my mother and the teachers of Ethelridge had drilled into me, I curtsied.
He waved his hand. “Get up. I’m sure your brother wouldn’t approve.”
I straightened up gratefully. It disconcerted me to have to show such respect to someone around my own age. He was dressed similarly to Gene, in line with the evening’s strict formal dress code, but every item of clothing from his cravat to his stockings and shoes was either dyed in jewel shades or elaborately embroidered. His waistcoat was covered with an elaborate version of what I dimly remembered to be his family crest: the Longville Wyrm, a sinister, wingless dragon.
“My brother doesn’t mean anything by his speeches, Your Grace. He just likes to put on a show.”
“Don’t worry, I know all about Gene. It was always going to be me and him in the final.”
“You sound just like him. I suspect that superhuman levels of self-confidence are the real secret to success.”
He stepped even closer, until our bodies were almost touching. Every muscle in my body tensed.
“Or maybe the secret of success is a willingness to break the rules. And that seems to be another trait you and your brother share. Aren’t Advisor women barred from wearing their hair below the shoulders?
I touched my hair self-consciously, unsure how to respond.
He smiled. “Shall we dance?”
“I don’t indulge in collaboration, and neither should you, at this weekend of all times.” I ignored my subconscious excitement and used the most pious tone I could manage.
Unlike Gene, I wasn’t particularly interested in the Separation Treaty, and while all of my dalliances had been with other Advisors, I’d had a few stolen kisses with the minor Peers that inhabited my part of the world. Tonight though, for the sake of Gene’s standing in the Championship and my own reputation, I couldn’t risk any controversy.
Longville laughed. “You don’t actually believe in those old-fashioned ideas do you?”
“And what about your lovely fiancée?” Hopefully Marissa’s information was right. Otherwise I’d sound demented.
“Eleanor’s not the jealous type. And she’s a little too delicate to dance.”
I glanced around. Gene caught my eye and gave me a thumbs up, despite the fact I was talking to his rival.
“Fine. One dance,” I said. “Try to keep in time.”
My heart raced the moment Longville clasped his elegant hand to my waist. He was Gene’s opponent. He was a Peer. He was engaged. I ought to back out, but he’d already started to lead me around the room. Running away would have been beyond rude.
I closed my eyes so I didn’t have to look at his face, but I couldn’t ignore the strength of his hand wrapped around mine, the sound of his heartbeat or the warmth spreading between us. Each step he took absolutely aligned with my movements. Each spin tilted me at just the right angle, and I turned with almost as much fluidity as dancing with Gene.
Longville had to be about the same age as me if he was competing in the Contest—only those between sixteen and eighteen were eligible—but his poise, presence and status made him seem a good few years older.
“Open your eyes,” he said. “Look at me. This feels perfect. There’s no need to be embarrassed about it.”
I did as he commanded. Looking into his eyes left me faint, but only improved the sleekness of our movements.
“Good grief, Sis. I thought you were supposed to be the well-behaved one.” Gene’s teasing mental voice crept into my brain. I glanced up to see him on the balcony where Marissa had been.
“Don’t you start!” I snapped back through our connection.
“Start what?” Longville asked.
“Nothing. I hadn’t realised I’d spoken aloud.” In fact, I’d been sure I’d spoken telepathically so only Gene would hear, but at times, it could be difficult to tell the difference.
Longville pulled me closer towards him, without missing a beat. I needed to stop this. I never wanted it to end.
From nowhere, Marissa grabbed my arm, forcing us to freeze. “Tara, what are you doing? He’s the Peer’s Champion. If I’m not going to do anything to imperil Gene’s reputation, you can damn well behave yourself.”
“Gene doesn’t mind. I’m not doing anything wrong.”
She glared at Longville and physically removed his hand from my waist. “That’s because Gene’s an idiot when it comes to matters of protocol.”
The dashing young Peer winked, bowed, and disappeared into the encircling crowd.
My parents left around ten, and Marissa’s father ordered her home shortly afterwards. But Gene and I stayed until the formal end of the evening, just after midnight.
“There’s no way I’m going to sleep tonight,” he said, perhaps the closest he’d ever come to admitting to nerves. “What would you say to a little walk? We should explore Kaerlud while we have the chance.”
The moon was covered by clouds, and while I’d happily wandered the fields of Mercia after dark, the unfamiliar city had a sinister air. Still, I struggled to deny Gene at the best of times, and right now, nothing was more important than keeping him calm before the Contest Final.
“You and Marissa,” I said, once we’d left the main road where York Place and the Banqueting Hall stood and stepped onto a back street. “Tell me everything.”
It was too dark to see his smile, but I sensed it. “What’s there to tell? I’ve loved her since we were ten. And I’ve finally earned the status I need to marry her.”
“There’s no one I’d rather have as my new sister,” I replied.
“And what about you? All besotted with the dashing and handsome Lord Longville.” The moon came out from behind a cloud long enough for me to see Gene press his hand to his heart and pretended to swoon.
“Hardly. I’ve never met someone so smug and arrogant. Well, apart from you, obviously. He reminds me why you hate the Peers so much.”
Gene laughed. “I’m teasing. You’ve got the wrong idea about Longville though. He was at Waverley. He’s a decent guy, for a duke. It’s a shame it’s going to be the two of us in the final. Both because he’ll be harder to beat than most people and because it’ll feel like a hollow victory compared to beating some monster.”
Suddenly, through our connection, I sensed Gene’s body tense.
An arm clamped roughly around my waist, like a mocking memory of Longville’s earlier gentle touch. My assailant touched a knife to my throat.
A few metres away, two more men took a tight hold of Gene, one to each arm.
“Here they are. Two Advisors with ideas above their stations and smart mouths.”
From his dress, the roughness of his weapon and his distinctive vowels, he appeared to be a Dumnonian commoner.
“We’ve come up to Kaerlud for a little break, to watch the Contest and cheer on our lord,” the one behind me added. “We heard your speech. I don’t know what it’s like in Mercia, but in the South West, our Peers treat us with mercy, and we treat them with respect.”
From the outside, I must have seemed unnaturally calm, stoically silent. I saved my screams for where they’ll do the most good, begging Gene for help through our connection. He appeared to be in a worse position than me, but I’d come to have as much unquestioning faith in him as all those fools who chanted about the Bringer of Storms.
“Just keep still and keep breathing. I’ve got this,” he replied silently.
He spoke aloud. “Where I come from, when we disagree with someone’s politics, we fight them man to man. We don’t jump them in a gang, and we certainly don’t bring their sister into it.”
How far were they planning to take this? I’d warned Gene to watch his words. Not everyone believes you need a storm to clear the air. Some like to take their chances in the familiarity of an oppressive summer’s day.
“Brace yourself. I’m going to move.”
Gene twisted to the side, knocking one of his assailants to the ground with the force of his body. With his freed right arm, he grabbed the man on his left.
I shoved tentatively against my captor’s grip. It was like trying to push over a stone wall. “Hurry up,” I silently willed Gene.
“Let go of her,” ordered a voice that demanded obedience.
We all turned our heads. Three newcomers had entered the alley.
“This is none of your business,” snapped the man with the knife.