It was entirely Dram’s fault. I’ll tell him so one day, if he ever comes wandering back from the plains, and he’ll deny it as soon as he decides I’m teasing, for though he’d take the blame he’ll never take the credit – but it was his fault, all the same. I’d never have had cause to be in the Tourning Yard, if I hadn’t been looking for Dram – not even a provincial’s awed curiosity. I’ve seen burgs, large burgs and fine ones, and I’m not about to let my province down by betraying the least grudging respect for the keep at Khyre, though it’s larger in its own self than the burg in which I was raised. And if I hadn’t cause to be in the Tourning Yard, saving Dram’s presence there, I certainly hadn’t cause to poke my head into the mail stables in time to see a disgusted groom turn his back on a finely dressed stripling, and the stripling draw back one arm with obvious intent.
It’s amazing what you can think in the time it takes an obnoxious eighteen-year-old to throw an ill-advised punch. I thought, I was supposed to be at liberty today. I thought, does a Runner have authority, here in the Tourning Yard? I thought, they could help him out, the bastards – for there were three others closer at hand, and I could see in their stances and their expressions that they had no intention of doing anything but enjoying the show.
One of them gave a warning, at least. I heard it just as I began to move, painfully aware that I couldn’t possibly cross the space in time but determined to make the effort, and to argue jurisdiction later. It never came to that. Before I could take two strides the groom had swung back, catching the boy’s wrist neatly and giving a slick twist and pivot that brought the boy nose first to the ground before I could blink, one arm twisted almost to his neck, and the groom’s knee planted firmly in the small of his back.
The groom glanced up casually and met my eye. I fell back, embarrassed in equal part by my willingness to intrude and the futility of my gesture, and studied him as his gaze assessed me. He had all my height, which is rare enough, and rarer when it’s matched with the black hair and lean frame of an Assani, and he was holding the boy with deceptive ease, as one might hold an injured cat, confident enough in his strength and his hold to exert no excessive force, and yet allow the boy no space to harm himself or others. He was wasted as a groom, I thought, and then, remembering where I was, and realising that he was almost certainly a Crown Rider despite the faded tunic and plain boots, that he was wasted on the mails. So I can legitimately claim that it was never my first thought that the mouth beneath that frank gaze had a generous quirk to it that was asking to be kissed, but only my third or fourth, vying with a sick realisation, based on the whining protests of his captive, that the man I had taken for a groom was Cygnus Khyran, Master of Horse, one of the dozen highest officials in all Khyre.
He watched me work it out, and then he winked, and whilst I was still trying to decide whether that meant I should or should not bow he came smoothly to his feet, passing the boy easily to a Rider I recognised from Lowmead. A word passed between them, and he turned back to me.
“So I have here a pretty problem for a Runner and – ” his gaze swept me once more from head to toe “ – it seems also that I have a Runner … ”
If you’ve been following Dram Cetus then you may have met Sen before. This comes from both their futures, I think, and since Sen seems keen to tell me about it you’ll hopefully hear more about it in due course. I’ll just leave this here for now, half tease and half promise …