“I thought she might take a little more notice,” said Esu, hovering just above the desk. There was little point in the desk usually being there, as hardly any of the Renith were able to read or write, but Esu had taken to sitting on the edge of it whenever he grew tired, and occasionally sleeping on it.
The rest of the room was furnished plainly, with a bed beside the door and a window opposite. In the corner, a small pile of cushions decorated the otherwise bare floor. Sprawled backwards on top of them lay Finn, bruises flowering across his chest and arms, interspersed with scratches and cuts. He busied himself cleaning up the patches of dried blood until only faint stains remained visible against his tanned skin.
“Why would she take notice?” he asked, dabbing awkwardly at the back of his left hand with a wet cloth.
“Well, given that you’re her second–”
“I’m not.” Finn looked up abruptly. His hand trembled in mid-air, water dripping from the cloth onto the cold stone floor. “She’s a prince– a princess, and I’m...”
“Sixth in line to the throne? The possible future king?”
“Possible,” said Finn, stressing the word. “We both know it’ll never happen. Even – ah!” He winced as the cloth scraped away a scabbed piece of skin, breaking the wound and letting blood trickle down past his wrist. He quickly stemmed the flow, trying to mop it up and ending up smearing red streaks across his arm. “Even if the others were hit by the plague, it’d... They’d find someone else. I’m the bastard of the war that destroyed their country. They won’t accept me as one of their own, let alone as their king.”
“I never said king of Cinion.”
“Oh, she won’t have me.” Finn plunged the dirty cloth into the bowl of cold water at his side and wrung it out with a sigh.
“I don’t see why not. She’s got less of a claim than you.”
“She’s somewhat loved by her people. Which is something I’ll never have.”
“Love is overrated.” Esu pushed himself backwards with one strong flap of his wings and collapsed onto the desk. “Although I’ll admit you look a bit of a state. Do you need any help with that, by the way?”
Finn shook his head. He picked up a few strips of cloth from the ground and began tying them around the more severe injuries. “I’m nearly done. Most of it’s just scratches.”
Esu watched the young man tie several of the longer strips around his chest until there was more cloth than skin on display. Finn was so ridiculously young by his count, dark hair sprawling over eyes older than his years. But he would outlive the rest of them, all the humans around him, all those he liked to call friends. Not by much, perhaps – nobody knew a great deal about the halfbloods that had been conceived during the war – but enough to separate him from the others. Maybe that was why Finn threw himself around so recklessly. Maybe he thought he could live and die alongside them before his blood made any difference. He had more chance fitting in with them than he ever would with the pixies of Cinion.
“So does the girl know now, then?”
“The princess?” Finn asked. “She’s known all along. Well, for a long time, anyway.”
“No, you idiot. The Renith girl. The one you were with when it happened.”
“Oh, Riyuel.” Finn paused, biting his lip. “I’m not sure if she knows. She heard them call it out, but I don’t know if she believed it. She hasn’t said anything.”
“Not to me.” Finn stood up from the cushions. He moved the bowl over to the desk, struggling not to spill it. He walked with a slight limp that only made things more difficult. Esu wondered if he was hiding another injury. “But I’m not sure she’s one to bring that sort of thing up.”
“Really? How rare. But then, I suppose she’s not Ythian.”
Finn ran a hand through his hair, evidently irritated by his companion jumping to such conclusions. “You’re just like them, aren’t you?”
“I am one of them,” Esu reminded him. He thought the young man sometimes forgot, even when they were staring each other straight in the face. It seemed Finn was able to overlook someone barely the length of his forearm not being human. He didn’t mind Esu hovering nearby, but he was easily irritated when the conversation reminded him of their difference. Esu wondered if that was something to do with his pixie blood, not taking much notice of physical appearances.
“I know. But... I don’t know, I just sort of expected you to be different to the rest. As the king’s envoy and all that. You might’ve been a little more professional.” Finn perched next to Esu, leaning his bum against the desk’s edge.
“Says the boy wandering around shirtless after being beaten to a bloody pulp by a handful of sailors.”
“Seven of them, actually. Or maybe it was eight. I think one got me from behind.” He automatically placed a hand behind his back, feeling for further bruises.
“I still don’t understand why you didn’t bother fighting back. I think self-defence is acceptable behaviour, even in the princess’s employ.”
“Because I didn’t want Riyuel getting smashed to a pulp alongside me. You know what people can be like when they’re riled up, especially that close to the border. If I’d fought back, she’d have used magic, and without any sort of Guild insignia, they’d have assumed she was the same as me.”
“So far as you seem to know, she assumes that.”
He was pressing Finn deliberately now, because he wanted the truth, and Finn had become so comfortable with the princess’s politics that the truth came with more difficulty these days. Something existed between him and the girl Riyuel, and probing his awkwardness and irritation about it often led to a bargain of other information just to get off the topic.
“Which is exactly why I didn’t want her involved. I don’t want her finding out, no matter how much things might or might not change. I just...don’t want her knowing. I’d rather I didn’t know.”
“Hm. I doubt that one.” Finn had become more sure of himself, particularly in the presence of the princess, since he had been told of his lineage.
“I don’t mean about being in line. I don’t care about the throne. It’s nice to feel important and everything, but it’ll come to nothing and we both know it. I mean my Cinion blood in general. I wish my mother had just lied and said my father had run off.”
“It wouldn’t stop them. You know it wouldn’t.”
The rest of Cinion would still know about his bloodline, would be able to see it in his very being. Finn knew as well as Esu that the hatred wouldn’t stop.
“It’s easier to want to forget it, though. I can’t just stop being something.”
“You can stop being so whiny. The girl doesn’t know, and if she does she doesn’t care. You’re a bit beaten up, but you’ll live. Stop complaining about every little thing. Stick some coleph on the wounds if they hurt that much.”
“You were the one complaining that the princess didn’t care,” Finn pointed out. “And why coleph, of all things?”
It was easy enough to understand his scepticism. Coleph was a roadside herb with bitter leaves that were difficult to digest. It had little to no culinary value, but was useful for poultices when crushed. Esu told him as much.
“As for the princess, of course I’m irritated by her not caring. That’s my job.”