"The very moment I'm out of these I'm going to finish breaking your face," Sarrica said.
He couldn't turn his head to look at Lesto in the stocks beside him, and his left hand was in his way anyway, but Sarrica didn't need to see to know the scathing, disgusted look on Lesto's face.
Sarrica's mouth, his teachers and commanding officers and father were fond of telling him, was what always got him into trouble.
Lesto didn't need words to express his opinion. According to his father, Lesto's every thought was on his face—all the more when that thought wasn't a good one. But then, the notorious Duchen was known for the very same thing. The Duchess, even across the seas, despaired of both husband and heir.
"Why did you punch me this time, anyway?" Sarrica asked. "I haven't even seen you all day. Father had me in council meetings with him all day, which was even more stupid and boring than I knew it would be. The minute I'm High King I'm making a new law that no member of the council is allowed to speak longer than five minutes at a time, and have to wait for three other people to speak before going a second time."
That got a sharp bark of laughter. "Good luck with that, Imperial Crown Halfwit."
Sarrica shot a nasty look in Lesto's general direction.
"Keep talking, both of you, and you'll earn yourself an extra hour," said a guard as he strode into the yard to check on them.
Sarrica started to reply, then actually thought better of it. The guard gave him a faintly surprised look. "Half an hour more and you get a break." He strode off again, calling to someone out of Sarrica's line of sight.
When he was certain no one would hear them talking, he said, "Seriously, why did you punch me? I haven't done anything! Even if I wanted to incur your wrath, which I don't, I haven't had time."
"Oh, shut up," Lesto said sourly. "I know damn good and well what you've been saying about me, you pantheon-rejected bastard."
"Well that makes one of us." What had he said? Sarrica wracked his mind for anything that could have been misconstrued or twisted by people in the palace, but Twelve, if he wasn't in training or in lessons then he was shadowing his father learning things that managed to be even more boring than mathematics. "You can be mad at me all you like, but it doesn't do much good if I don't know what you're talking about."
"Pantheon reject you!" Lesto snarled. "I heard you! And everyone was more than happy to repeat it to me over breakfast anyway!"
"Repeat what?" Sarrica asked. "The last time I said anything about you was telling my father I wanted you to come along on my trip south, though I'm starting to change my mind."
"You said you were tired of me following you around! That irritating know-it-all desperate for friends that even his fancy title can't buy. The only thing he loves is his sword."
Sarrica groaned. "Seriously, Lesto? You're supposed to be smart! You're dumber than a broken crate of rotted clams!"
"The minute I'm free—"
"Whatever, I'll knock you flat for being a halfwit long before you're able to get a swing in," Sarrica snapped. "I wasn't talking about you. I was talking about Corrian, that creepy bastard from Benta. The one who looks like someone sat on his nose and thinks he's better than everyone else because his daddy is best friends with a bunch of stuffy, supposedly important people. He won't stop following me. I keep using the secret tunnels to avoid him. I was complaining to Farawni; just how many people were eavesdropping? I can't believe you thought I was talking about you."
"It made sense," Lesto muttered.
Sarrica rolled his eyes. "It did not. Does not. Whatever. You're a clod of dirt. If I was sick of you, I'd say go away, Lesto. If I was talking to someone else, I'd say 'I'm sick of Lesto' or 'I'm sick of the future Duke of Pirates' or—" He pitched his voice to sound like the breathy sons and daughters of the courtiers, "I'm sick of Lord I Love Pirates More Than Anything In the World."
"I hate you."
"Yes, I know, my nose is still feeling it."
A long sigh, and then Lesto grumbled, "Sorry." A pause, and then he added, "I do not love pirates more than any—"
The rest of what he said was drowned out by Sarrica's laughter.
"Why do I spend time with you?" Lesto asked when Sarrica stopped laughing. "I'm going to get in more trouble for showing up late for afternoon drills. I was supposed to be going into the city tonight, and now I'm going to be scrubbing the barracks floors until I pass out."
"Don't worry, I'm sure I'll be right there with you," Sarrica said. "I'm supposed to be with my father meeting the delegates from Treya Mencee. That starved pigeon from university is supposed to be among them."
Sarrica grunted. "That's the one. Father says we should be good friends."
"Lord Oscar thinks it's acceptable to slip dream powder into the drinks when he can't be bothered to ask for consent. That's no friend of yours. Why did they let him back out of Treya Mencee?"
"His father was appointed ambassador, didn't you hear?"
"Sarrica, when in the sixteen years I've been alive have I given a single damn about who is ambassador to what? I barely know the names of the people we put up with every day."
Silence fell for a few minutes, then Lesto asked in a tone Sarrica had only heard from him on one other occasion. "You really weren't talking about me?"
"Lesto, if there's anyone between the two of us who should hate the other, it's you who should hate me. I called you stupid the day we met. It cost me a rose ice. Why would I go behind your back now? Because I don't want to wind up in the stocks? Ha!"
"You're an ass."
"That's rich coming from you, pirate lover."
"I don't love pirates!" Lesto hissed.
Sarrica sniggered. "Please. You probably write love notes and put them in bottles and toss them into the sea. Then you stand there all dramatic on the shore or the coast pretending—"
"I am going to fucking kill you. At least I didn't dump an entire pitcher of wine down the front of Lady Minu's gown."
"I hate her and I hated that particular wine. It seemed a good combination."
A startled silence, then, "You did it on purpose?"
"Of course I did it—"
"Are you supposed to be talking?"
They both snapped their mouths shut.
"You're supposed to be getting a break," Captain Leela said, "but I think I'll let you suffer another ten minutes."
"So is having to put up with the pair of you," Leela retorted. "But here we all are."
Sarrica winced. "Apologies, Captain."
"I don't want to hear it," she said, then sighed. "What I want is for the two of you to show sense. You're young—too young, I think, for all that is falling and will soon fall on your shoulders. But it is what it is and there's nothing to do about except ensure that you are as ready as you can be. And being mindlessly violent about every little thing, especially with each other, isn't how to deal with problems. Both of you would be where you should be right now if you'd had a civil conversation instead of a shouting match followed by a round of punching. Listening to gossip doesn't accomplish anything, and I thought you both knew that. Cadet?"
"I am sorry, Captain," Lesto said. "I should have known better. I should have asked."
"Better. Your Highness?"
"I didn't—" Sarrica snapped his mouth shut at her look. "I shouldn't have punched him after he punched me." But he was going to find out who had told Lesto lies and punch them.
She gave him a look. "Subtlety is never going to be your gift, Highness. It's rarely difficult to tell what you're thinking. You should work on that, but also accept that you'll probably never be as contained regarding your thoughts as would be preferable. If you can't hide them, own them, but don't be controlled by the emotions driving them."
"So what am I supposed to do? Just let people get away with lying to Lesto and trying to sabotage our friendship?"
"Well from where I'm standing, it certainly looks like they succeeded. Whatever they wanted, those parties are having a grand laugh, at the very least. What if they had wholly succeeded and you and Lesto were no longer friends? All because you let other people control you. Instead of yelling and punching people, try hitting them where it hurts."
Sarrica gave her a look.
"Don't get smart," Leela said. "I mean: these are nobles. All their power is in their titles and their fortunes. It's generally not worth tampering with their position in court, so go after their money. Fine them. Sit down and actually read some of those books your tutors and professors put in front of you and learn all the reasons you can force them to hand over money to the courts. That will simmer them down."
"Father never does that," Sarrica said.
"Your father doesn't heed advice very well. I am hoping to fix that problem in the son."
Sarrica couldn't argue with that, so didn't bother.
"As for you," Leela said, and Lesto groaned. "You have a long way to go, cadet, if you're going to be worth anything as a soldier. Fathoms Deep should be ashamed of you right now. What will your parents say?"
"Not to bother them unless I'm bleeding to death?" Lesto replied, and yelped when she cuffed him. "It's true," he muttered.
Leela gave him a look. "I think you can have your break now, and then you still have one hour to go, I think?"
"Yes, Captain," Lesto and Sarrica sighed together.
The barest hint of smile flickered across her face. "Sergeant, unlock—"
Her words were drowned out by laughter, as a tall figure with milk-white skin and a lean frame stalked across the yard. Other figures followed him, one who looked just like the young man laughing at them, all of them dressed in Treya Mencee clothes, all tight fits and shiny gold buttons and lace trimming everything. "The imperial crown prince in the stocks! This country is barbaric."
Sarrica barred his teeth. "Barbaric is turning people into slaves."
"Why are you locked up like a common criminal, Harkenos?"
"I'm locked up like somebody who broke the rules," Sarrica said. "Why do you always ask such stupid questions, Oscar?"
He jutted his chin out as the rest of the group reached them. "Where I come from, we don't put future kings in stocks."
"That explains a lot," Sarrica replied. "Maybe if they put a few more of you royals and nobles in stocks, you might get through your heads that treating people like animals is wrong."
Oscar gave him a pitying look. "Some people are not as smart and capable as others. It's for the best they're looked after by those of us who are capable."
Sarrica nearly lost it then, but the wan look on Leela's face stopped him short. Her wife was from Treya Mencee—an escaped slave from one of the colonies under Trey Mencee rule, in fact. Tamping down on what he wanted to say, Sarrica instead asked, "What are you doing out here?"
"I wanted to see you, and they were giving us a tour of your rather eccentric palace. Someone said you were here, but I couldn't quite believe they'd be so disrespectful of their betters."
"Everyone is subject to punishment for breaking rules," Sarrica said, looking at Oscar like he'd grown two heads. "I'm a cadet in the army, and therefore subject to military law. But I only have another hour of punishment left and then I will be more than happy to discuss the matter further. I'm not really supposed to be talking right now."
Oscar looked as though he wanted to argue, but his father called to him sharply, offered apologies to Leela and someone Sarrica couldn't see, and shortly after that they finally left.
"My father is going to kill me," Sarrica moaned.
"For once, I disagree," Leela replied. "That was well done, Highness. Show that much class and sense every time you're mad at someone, and you'll be the finest High King this empire has ever seen."
"Ha!" Lesto said.
"I'm going to punch you the minute we're free," Sarrica retorted.
Leela sighed. "Let them out for a break, then they have one more hour left—and an additional fifteen minutes for being smartasses and talking when they shouldn't."
"Yes, Captain," said the nearby sergeant holding the keys.
Sarrica and Lesto groaned, but didn't argue, merely called farewell as Leela swept away in a jangle of armor and swordbelt.