The elegant common room of the White Paladin Inn had been repainted since Arico had last seen it: Its carven motifs of angels and acanthus leaves had been restored to their former elegance, and new chairs, plushly padded and gleaming with heraldic motifs, had been placed around the highly polished tables. The inn was the finest in the capital, if not the world; there was no question in Arico’s mind why his Uncle Solda preferred the place.
The master of the house greeted Arico with a faintly strained smile. A jovial man (Whose name invariably eluded Arico; it began with an “F”, if he recalled correctly), the landlord always seemed as if he was privy to some highly amusing secret that he refused to share with anyone else. “Good afternoon, sir,” the man beamed. “How may I assist you?”
Arico resisted the desire to order something to eat. The pitiful remnant of his annual stipend rattled loosely in his purse, and he dared not erode it further. Catching a glimpse of a lovely servant girl pouring some wine, he almost changed his mind, but his willpower overcame the temptation in a rare triumph. “I’m here to see Kaide, Lord Valefos, in the Troyka Suite. He’s expecting me,” he said confidently, hoping that he wasn’t completely mistaken.
A wide staircase led up to the suite, with Arico growing more nervous with every step. What if his cousin was in one of his "moods" and refused to see him? He’d spent almost all of his money making sure that his gelding, Harrier, was properly stabled and treated for its injuries. The huscarls of Baron Miroll were poor archers, but they had almost brought the poor creature down as Arico fled the despicable baron's lands. Only a truly odious man would order his troops to shoot a beautiful creature like Harrier, Arico reflected.
Briefly glancing down the stairs, Arico noticed the servant girl's eyes glance up at him, a mysterious smile on her lips. Perhaps this wasn’t such a bad idea after all, he reflected, as he tapped politely at the door.
It seemed an eternity before the door opened to reveal his cousin Kaide, his embroidered robes rumpled and stained with ink. Arico was struck by the impression that his cousin had eaten something that disagreed with him. “Oh, gods. It’s you,” Kaide croaked irritably.
“Cousin Kaide! How wonderful to see you again!” Arico exclaimed, determined not to be discouraged by his cousin’s distemper.
Kaide stuck his head out the door, peering dramatically past Arico, as if he couldn’t spot something. “Gods. All right, Arico: Where are they?”
Arico was taken aback by his cousin’s cryptic utterance. “Where are what?” he asked.
“The trail of furious husbands, fiancées and brothers you usually leave in your wake,” answered the scholar. “It isn’t hard to tell where you’ve been: Just look for the lynch mob of furious relatives and you’ll know. Come in, Arico: You were going to, anyway. So… what have you done this time?”
"Don't be such a wet blanket!” Arico protested, as he shrugged his cloak off, dropping it onto the floor. “It's not like I only come to see you when I'm in trouble!"
"Yes, you do," Kaide muttered, picking up the dusty garment and depositing it on the hook a few feet away.
Arico’s words were muffled by a sweet roll he had liberated from the chamber’s sideboard. "You just think that because I was in trouble the last couple of times I visited. The time before that, I was fine."
"But you got into trouble within five hours of arriving!" blurted his cousin.
Arico wore a look of pained innocence. "That was hardly my fault! How was I to know the girl was married? We'd barely met! Besides, all we did was play cards. The thing with the ribbons was just a... penalty."
Gathering his expensive tomes before Arico could spill something on them, Kaide recalled the awkward incident. "I'm never playing cards with you again," he decided.
“You act as if you've never done ANYTHING wrong. I know very well that you didn't have permission to peruse those grimoires from the Bishop's secret cache of banned texts," Arico smugly commented.
"Well, no, of course not. But at least I was discreet about it."
"Discreet? I heard about it, so you can't have been that discreet. You need to learn to lie with a straight face. When the Bishop asked about his library, you should have just sat there, not acted like you had to rush to the privy!" pushed Arico, sensing his cousin’s moral vulnerability.
Kaide seized his opportunity to change the subject. "You, of all people, should know how pushy Gwendolyn is. I was trying to get away from her; the library was just an unfortunate coincidence."
His minimal sense of chivalry aroused, Arico rose to the robust girl’s defense. “You shouldn't put Gwenny down like that. She's a sweet girl, as long as she gets her way."
"Arico, she was practically flinging herself at me! While her father was in the room!"
"…besides, Gwenny is VERY imaginative," Arico sighed, remembering an earlier encounter.
"I don't want to know," stammered Kaide, as he belatedly remembered some vague comments his cousin had made during his last visit.
“You’re being quite prudish, cousin! For Gwen, that was quite sedate!"
"Is it any wonder I took the first available excuse to leave the room, then?" riposted the sorcerer.
"Gwen would have been good for you. She'd show you how to dress better, for one thing," Arico pointed out to his unfashionable cousin.
"What's wrong with the way I dress? Just because I don't like loud colors and flashy jewels like some people I could name..."
The discussion dragged on well into the evening, with Arico gradually becoming aware that his cousin knew more of the rumors about the king than he had heard while traveling. Kaide often forgot just how many years Arico had spent fostered at the court of King Varnin, and never understood how much the monarch’s kindness had meant to a scared and lonely boy sent far from home.