“Hey there,” Kevin said, hands shoved casually in his pockets, falling into step with Anji.
“Mm?” Anji frowned. “Aren’t you still wooing your lover?”
Kevin treated her to a wink and a whimsical grin. “Maybe I am, m’lady.”
Snorting, Anji headed for the sparring grounds. “Fat chance, Blondie.”
Kevin hurried after her, smiling. “I do have a name, you know, Anji Torvantine. I’ll spar you, if you like.”
“You have a name?” The girl sniffed. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“In that case,” he said, grabbing her hand, “it’s a good thing I mentioned it. Kevin Aqaba, at your service.” He bowed in mock seriousness.
Anji eyed him, a small smirk tightening her eyes. “And you’re a prince.”
“And you’re magic.”
Anji smiled, pulling her hand away. “I am not. Thank you for the introduction, Aqaba.”
“My friends call me Kevin.”
Kevin swallowed, before forcing himself to smile at her again. “Yes, Anji Torvantine. We are friends.”
“All right then, Kevin.” Anji plopped down by a fence, looking around for anyone else. “I like your confidence.”
“Thank you. I like your sense of humour.” Kevin leaned back against the fence, twisting the edge of his sleeve in his fingers.
“If you’re looking for an escort, I don’t sleep with clients.”
Kevin raised an eyebrow. “What am I your client for?”
“I don’t know, you’re the one paying, I presume.”
He smirked. “I’m paying you now? For what, the pleasure of your friendship?”
Anji was interrupted by a voice calling from the opposite side of the field. “Torvan. Best you get scarce for now. You’ll find your sister on the opposite side of the campus, by the gate.”
Anji looked up, annoyance turning to anxious, careful joy. Within a breath, she was standing and gone, headed toward a large metal gate by the end of the compound.
The man, for it was a man’s voice who had spoken, moved a few steps closer to Kevin. “You need not be so reliant on subordinates.”
Kevin tensed, his eyes following where Anj had gone. “Who in this picture was a subordinate, John?”
“The girl. You’re a prince, not a moonsick lover. Act like it.”
“Don’t tell me where to choose my friends,” Kevin snapped. “You’ve had enough say in which girls I associate with, I think.”
“I was protecting you, Your Highness.” John sighed wearily. “I was acting in the best interests of Orono then, and I am now.”
“What’s in my best interests right now, I think, is for me to help my friend find her sister.” Kevin pushed away from the fence, heading in the direction the girl had gone.
“Kevin, I can’t let you keep doing this to yourself.”
Kevin turned around, facing the shorter man squarely. “John, this isn’t your decision.”
John stared up at him tersely. “I made an oath, Your Highness.”
“My life is not in danger.”
“The future heir’s is. The girl isn’t royal, is she? Do you want thieves’ blood in your parent’s house?”
“I’m not making any rash decisions right now,” Kevin said quietly. “Just talking with an intellectual equal.”
“The last time you did that, the poor girl was sent to Puludun.”
“Then let’s be sure that doesn’t happen this time,” Kevin said, glaring fiercely. He paused. “Are we even in Orono at the moment, John?”
“No, Your Highness.” John grumbled. “If you had paid any attention to your briefings, you would know exactly where we are.”
“The one you slept through before riding off into the sky like a Quixotic hero.”
Kevin turned away again. “I miss when you were honest with me.”
“When did I deviate from that?”
“You’re playing games, John. Briefings before riding off into the sky? This whole battle games business? You’ve changed. And you don’t want me in the loop.”
“You rely far too much on your subordinates, sir.”
“I rely more on my friends.”
“Which is a folly for a future king.” John stood straighter, one hand on the pommel of his sword.
“You’re wrong,” Kevin said. “Kings need alliances. They need the accordance of their lords and of their neighbours. They need guards who care about them and not just the salaries they pay, people who know their ruler loves them so they can love him in their turn. If I don’t rely on friendship, John, I cripple myself.”
“By becoming dependent on your ‘friends’ Your Highness forgets his duty to the crown. By all means, be friendly with your subjects, but keep in mind, that is all they are or should ever be.” John’s eyes narrowed. “How many more people must be wounded by your refusal to grow up?”
Kevin faced John, his own eyes narrowed in kind. “You are a very dear… friend to me, John, but even you don’t have the right to pass judgement in this way. I will build my throne by the dictates of my conscience, not yours or Mother’s.”
“I swore to defend Orono, Your Highness.”
“You swore to defend by blade and blood. Neither is called for here.”
John appeared to swallow something foul before nodding and stepping back. “I am forever your servant, my Prince.”
“Forever my friend?”
“I would be but a poor one, sire.”
“And you’ve made it clear that I am in kind.”
“Those of royal lineage do not have the luxury of being good friends.” John said softly. “I still advise strongly from pursuing Torvan, you’ll only serve to hurt her, not aide her.”
“Torvantine,” Kevin corrected irrelevantly.
John smiled distantly. “As you say, your information gathering skills have always surpassed my own.”
Kevin gave John a sour look and turned away again.
“We should spar, Your Highness. You appear out of practice.”
“Another time,” Kevin answered irritably.
“That wasn’t a request, soldier.” John swung with his staff, forcing Kevin to shift quickly into a defensive stance.
Kevin blocked the blow, but only barely. He grimaced. “What are you playing at, John?”
“I never play, Your Highness.” John pressed forward, and Kevin backed up in response, the two slowly finding their footing in the designated practice area. “You know I always act in your best interests.”
“Do I? You’ve changed, John. This isn’t how we used to operate together. That can’t be only about Mother’s orders.”
“I’ve always operated autonomously, and you know that.” John struck forward again, the edge of his stave slipping inside the Prince’s defense.
“That’s absurd.” Kevin winced, dodging enough that the blow only glanced against his shins rather than totally knocking him off balance. “We’ve always worked together. Now we’re each standing alone.”
“Aye, sire.” John twisted, sweeping the stave towards Kevin’s ankles.
Kevin blocked the strike, watching John expectantly. When the man said nothing further, he let out a sound of frustration and went on the attack for the first time. “Then what’s the point of this charade, John?”
“I serve the house Aqaba.”
“You’re shutting me out.”
“I protect the kingdom of Orono.”
“So you keep saying.”
The ground rumbled, and Kevin’s eyes widened, his face going white as memories flooded back into his mind. “Anjali,” he gasped, and turned away from John to find her.
John’s arm snaked out, the stave smacking the Prince’s shoulder soundly. “We aren’t finished, Your Highness. Never turn your back on an opponent, even if they are your friend.”
Kevin stumbled, turning back. One hand rubbed his aching shoulder, while the other gripped his weapon warily. “What the hell are you doing, John? I need to go to my wife. You aren’t my enemy here.”
He glared. “Damn all, John. You’re still…” Kevin trailed off, his weary mind still racing. “You’re here. You can join our fight. Working with us against this Castle doesn’t contravene Mother’s orders to you.”
“I am under other oaths, Your Highness.”
“To whom?” Kevin demanded.
John sagged, the stave thudding into the ground. “To Shardreach.”
“No,” Kevin said, comprehending but refusing to accept this as final.
“I didn’t have a choice,” John said wearily.
“Then it’s not a binding oath. You already swore to defend me.”
“It is certainly constricting, Your Highness. I’m sorry.”
The prince’s blue eyes flashed angrily. “I won’t fight you, John. I’m not standing against my best friend.”
John grimaced. “I’m the caretaker of this floor, Kevin. You don’t have a choice.”
“You can refuse to fight, too,” Kevin urged.
“I can’t anger it either!”
“Do nothing. Follow Mother’s orders to the letter, and stand neutral, then.” Kevin sagged. “I know I’m asking a lot of you, John. I always do.”
“It won’t let me stay that way for long, Kev’.”
“You’re the strongest person I know. If anyone can hold out for long enough, it’s you.” Kevin maintained his gaze, staring stubbornly at John.
“I’ll try,” John promised, brushing his hair back with one hand. “I am your servant, my liege.”
Kevin stepped forward to embrace his friend. “You’re the best man I know, John,” he whispered fiercely.
Lead by example. Get lost in a swamp.
AS DICTATED TO INSTANTIATION 17-01-18-01.