“All right, kiddo, this is it. What’d’ya think?” Cherry flung open her arms and laid her outfit over to the inspection of the only person who could be her confidante at this moment.
Unfortunately, that person was six.
Banana’s little nose wrinkled. “Isn’t that the same outfit you wear all the time?”
“Yes, it is, but bear with me. It’s the first time I’m wearing it to the Tricross.”
Banana’s lower lip protruded in her deep thought. One hand gripped her feet as she rocked back and forth. “Why?”
Drat. Cherry had thought Banana was over the “why” stage. “Why what?”
“Why haven’t you worn that to the Tricross before?”
“Don’t want to scare the locals.” Cherry arched her back, exposing the line of her bare stomach even more to the light. “When’s the last time you saw a bare midriff outside this house, kiddo?”
Banana’s nose wrinkled again. “But it’s cold outside, Cherry. Even the ladies in Bledavik don’t go outside with a bare tummy when it’s cold outside.”
“All right, when I said ‘outside,’ I meant it more … metaphorically. You know. As in anywhere that’s not inside this house, even if the place isn’t outside.”
Banana’s brows wrinkled, as they always did whenever Cherry told her she was speaking metaphorically — which was depressingly often. You’d think she would have gotten the hang of speaking to a much-younger sibling by now. Hopefully she would be better at this by the time Benji got old enough to carry out a conversation consisting of more than, “Mine!” and “No!” “The Cap’n says a metter-four is a fancy word for lie.”
“And he would be right, but a metaphor is the kind of lie nobody expects to be believed.”
“You mean like what you tell tax collectors?” Banana perked up.
“Huh. I wonder why the Cap’n didn’t just say that,” Banana mused.
“Because he gets his kicks by telling you stuff that isn’t quite true and then watching the rest of us run around like chickens with our heads cut off trying to set you straight. And I know this, dear, because he perfected the technique with yours truly.”
Banana giggled. “That must have been fun! What kinds of other stuff did the Cap’n tell you?”
“Oh, no! I’m not telling you and spoiling his fun! To say nothing of mine …”
“Cherry!” she giggled. “That’s not fair!”
“What’s not fair about it? You get to have the same fun I did! No more, no less!”
“Oh. Well, I guess when you say it like that …” She grabbed her feet and rocked back and forth again. “Cherry?”
“Are you gonna meet … a boy at the Tricross?”
“Probably,” Cherry deadpanned.
“A real boy,” Banana pressed. “Not like one of Jack’s friends.”
“What are Jack’s friends, if not real boys?”
Banana pondered that, her lower lip coming out, her eyes drifting up to the ceiling or whatever it was that she saw beyond that. Not that Banana’s eyes, or her thoughts, were ever very far from the clouds. “Cow demons?” she asked.
Cherry laughed. “That would explain the smell! Fire and brimstone!”
“What does brimstone smell like? ‘Cause fire doesn’t smell like much of anything.”
Banana’s eyes flew wide. “Jack and his friends do smell like rotten eggs!”
“Yup,” Cherry replied. “You figured it out, kiddo. They’re not boys, they’re –”
“CHERRY!” came the yell from the bottom of the stairs. “Would you hurry up? We want to get there before it gets too dark!”
“… Royal pains in the ass,” Cherry muttered. Banana squealed. “Anyway, give me a hug, kiddo, before our dear cow-demon brother calls up some more of his buddies and really stinks the place up.”
Banana bounded off the bed and wrapped her arms around Cherry’s neck. “Have fun!”
“You too, kiddo.” Banana pulled away with a grin. The sad thing, she probably would have plenty of fun with her dollies and the room all to herself. Oh, to be six again.
Cherry kissed her baby sister’s head and hurried out of the bedroom and down the stairs. “I’m comin’, I’m comin’!” she called.
“‘Bout time!” Jack jumped up from the couch. “Come on, let’s go!”
“Now, now, little brother. We must pay respect to our elders.” Cherry sauntered over to the other couch, where Jessiah was lounging, and kissed his forehead. “Night, Cap’n. We’ll see you in the morning.”
Jessiah sighed. “You kids make me feel so damned old. It feels like just yesterday I was the one cuttin’ a swath through town.”
“That’s because it was just yesterday, Cap’n,” Jack pointed out.
“Damn! Must be losin’ my memory. Why am I not goin’ out tonight, then?”
“Because your headache made you a bear to put up with until maybe half an hour ago, and we’re not dealin’ with that for at least another week,” Sorcha called from the table.
Jessiah turned a mournful glance in Cherry’s direction. “How is it that my daughter-in-law gets to ground me, and not you all?”
“Probably because you let her, Cap’n,” Cherry replied. “All right, kid,” she turned to Jack, “let’s get out of here before you wear a hole in the floorboards.”
Jack darted toward the door, but before they left, there was one last obstacle to face: their parents.
Bart turned and smiled at them, the corner of his one good eye crinkling. “Don’t stay out too late, now.”
“Be home by midnight,” Sorcha corrected. “And by home I mean home. Not in the shire, not on the block, in this house and preferably telling your father and me how the evening went. Understood?”
“Midnight?” Jack whined. He glared at Cherry.
Cherry rolled her eyes at him before turning back to her mother. “Can do, Mum,” she replied. “See you in a bit!”
And with that, they were free.
Jack muttered under his breath the whole way to the Tricross, and Cherry did her best not to react … well, react too harshly. Idiot little brother. Did it not occur to him that they would probably be the only two in the Tricross with a curfew of midnight, and the hostess would probably chase them out the door with her broom long before they would have had to leave in order to get home anyway? Delyth would probably be expected to be home long, long before midnight — assuming her father didn’t send an armed escort to pick her up. He hadn’t done that yet, but from some of the things Delyth said about him, Cherry wondered if he might.
Still, Jack’s muttering aside, before too much of the evening had passed they were pushing open the black doors of the Tricross Inn and going inside.
Of course, as soon as they were in, Jack darted away from her and practically pounded up the stairs to get to where his friends were, upstairs playing poker. Cherry wished she could wonder how much money Jack would be losing, but the problem with that was that Jack usually cleaned up. The grandchildren of the Cap’n generally did.
That, however, left Cherry to glanced around the main floor, wondering if …
“Delyth!” Cherry opened her arms and her best Albionese friend cannonballed into them. “How are you?”
“Fine, fine. Where’s George?” The two of them were increasingly joined at the lips with every passing day. Odd to see Delyth here without George waiting somewhere in the wings.
“He couldn’t make it. I think he blew something up in a potions class.”
“Yikes. Did he burn off anything worse than a pair of eyebrows?”
Delyth flushed a little at that, which made Cherry grin — so there was hope! Delyth’s sister wouldn’t have known to blush. “He didn’t say. But his eyebrows were both there when he talked to me this afternoon.”
“Huh. Was he walking funny, then?”
“Cherry!” Delyth smacked her arm. “You are so bad!” But she grinned when she said it, and she sounded more jealous than anything else.
“I try. So, where’s your sister?”
“She stayed home. Ravenna couldn’t make it either, I guess.”
“So you mean it’s just us?”
“Just you and me,” Delyth agreed.
“Awesome. Then let’s get some drinks, sister, and get ready to have some fun!” Cherry struck out for the bar, and Delyth followed eagerly behind her.
Delyth hopped up onto a seat, drumming her fingers and looking around her eagerly. “Kid, you’re acting like you’ve never sat at a bar before. And I know for a fact that you have.”
Delyth blushed again, still grinning like Banana let loose in a doll shop and told that she could pick out any that she wanted. “It’s just so horribly unladylike,” she replied.
“Is your mother really that strict about all that lady bull–nonsense? Whenever you talk about about her, she sounds so nice.”
“She is. It’s just …” Delyth kept drumming on the counter. “I don’t think it ever occurred to her that we could be anything other than ladylike, you know? Dindrane threw her for enough of a loop.”
“That’s your oldest sister, right? The bookish one?”
“Can I ask a silly question?”
“Go for it!”
“How come your parents gave all of their daughters’ names starting with D? They didn’t do that to your brothers.”
“Haven’t the foggiest. I know Dilys and I got twin names, but I don’t know why they picked the same letter that Dindrane’s name starts with.” Delyth shrugged. “Why did your parents name both of their daughters after fruits?”
“My hair was darker when I was born, and it had a cowlick that stood practically straight up — kind of like a stem. And the Cap’n says I was red all over. So I guess I kind of looked like a cherry.”
“Aren’t most babies red all over?” Delyth asked.
“I don’t know, you’re the one who’s seen two of them born in the past year.”
“Bah, I’m not talking about when they’re first born. They’ve got so much stuff on them, you can’t tell what color they are. I’m talking about later. I’ve only been able to observe Gareth. You have three little sibs. So spill.” She poked Cherry’s arm and winked.
Cherry pondered that. “Yeah, they pretty much all are red for those first few weeks. You’d think the Cap’n would have known that, even if my parents didn’t.”
“Maybe he just liked the name Cherry.”
“I guess so!”
“But that doesn’t explain why your parents named your sister Banana.”
“They didn’t. That was the Cap’n. Her real name is Annabeth.”
“That’s a pretty name.”
“I know. Pity the kid won’t answer to it.”
Delyth snickered. “At least she has a nickname. I dare you to come up with one for Delyth.”
“That’s not a nickname! That’s just another name!”
“Deli …” Delyth pondered that. “That’s not really a nickname, though. I mean, not like your Banana’s. It’s just a short form of the name.”
“Well, if it makes you feel better, I don’t have a nickname, either. Unless you count Cher. Which …” Cherry’s lower lip protruded for a moment, much as Banana’s like to. For some reason, she had never really liked the idea of the nickname Cher. It was for somebody with black hair, she thought, not red.
“So,” asked the bartender, jumping into the first lull in the conversation she could probably find, “what can I be gettin’ ye, m’ladies?”
“Double frosty walrus, on the rocks,” Cherry answered without thinking.
“A frosty walrus? I’ll have what she’s having!” Delyth pounced.
Shit! “No! No, that’s not a good idea.”
Delyth blinked, hurt. “Why not?”
“Because …” Because I do not want to have to carry you home and have your parents try to figure out what kind of lowlife friend you’ve got! I’m not dressed for it! And the last thing they needed was for the Chief Justiciar of the kingdom to start poking into their family. Still, she couldn’t say that … “Because,” she poked Delyth’s arm, “you’re wearing entirely the wrong sort of dress for it.”
Delyth raised her eyebrow at her and said nothing for it.
“I’m serious! This stuff puts hair on your chest! You don’t want to have to explain to your parents how you got yourself a nice little pelt overnight, now, do you?”
Delyth looked Cherry up and down once, twice, thrice. “Cherry, honey, I think if it put hair on your chest,you’d be wearing something different.”
“Nuh-uh! What do you think the lace is for?”
Delyth blinked. “You’re joking.”
“Wanna bet?” Cherry waggled her eyebrows up and down.
“… You would totally drag me into the ladies’ room and prove it to me, wouldn’t you?”
Delyth turned to the bartender. “I’ll have some mulled wine, please.”
“See? And you think your big sister is the smart one of the family.”
Delyth snickered. “She and Aglovale have the book smarts, but I’ve got the common sense.”
“What does that leave your other brother and other sister with?”
“Dilys has the … the imagination,” Delyth decided, “and Lamorak is the heir.”
“So he doesn’t need to have a brain?”
“You know,” Cherry mused, “I think he and Jack would get along just fine.”
Delyth snickered. “Could you imagine?”
“You bet,” Cherry replied, though I wouldn’t bet on it being accurate. Delyth had met Jack — Cherry had yet to meet Lamorak. Or any of Delyth’s sibs other than Dilys, but they were at least even on that score, since Delyth hadn’t met Banana or Benji.
“Although Lamorak is ten years older than Jack. More, actually. That might make a difference.”
“Pfft! The only difference that will make is that Lamorak has actually done all those things Jack is just imagining … and maybe a couple of others Jack hasn’t gotten around to imagining yet.”
Delyth howled. “Cherry! You are so bad!”
“I know, I try.”
The bartender handed them both their drinks, not hiding the roll of her eyes as she did so. Cherry winked at her, and the bartender actually cracked a smile.
Cherry made to toss back her frosty walrus — because you either tossed it back or you didn’t drink it at all — but thought better of it. “Want a sip?”
Delyth blinked. “I thought that stuff put hair on your chest.”
“It does! But just a sip should only put a strand or two on there. You can pluck ’em out easy.”
Delyth eyed Cherry skeptically over the rim of her wine … but after a moment, she motioned for the glass. Cherry handed it over.
It did not occur to her to worry that Delyth might take more than the sip Cherry had offered. And there was no need: a sip was enough for Delyth’s eyes to widen and for her to lower the glass, coughing and sputtering. “What the hell was that?” she gasped, her voice sounding like the most recent escapee of a housefire. She practically poured the wine down her lips.
“Frosty walrus,” Cherry replied, tossing the rest of it down her throat. “Double frosty walrus.”
“You mean you can make it less — awful?”
“Potent, you mean? Aye.”
“Then why don’t you?”
“Because I’m from Bledavik, my dear. Where I come from, you need at least one of these a day to keep your blood from freezing solid.” Cherry motioned to the bartender for another.
It did not escape Delyth’s notice. “You’re getting another one?”
“Why? Why? What kind of question is that, Delyth?”
“Because the second one takes the hair off the chest, that’s why!”
Delyth gaped — and laughed. “You liar!”
“You bet,” Cherry winked and waited for her frosty walrus.
Delyth nursed her wine and chuckled, shaking her head. But as she nursed, the chuckling grew more and more quiet, and the shaking more and more pronounced. “I wish …” she started.
Delyth slammed her goblet onto the counter — well, she probably thought it was a slam, poor dear. The ladylike training was hard to shake. “I wish I knew why Dilys didn’t like George! I don’t mind Kay!”
It still somewhat boggled Cherry’s mind that she had a friend, a best friend, even, who referred to a son of the ruling family with no honorific … but stranger things had happened, particularly in Cherry’s homeland, where the frosty walrus was the drink of choice. “She’s a shy one, Delyth. And George is a bit much. I bet that’s all that is.”
“That can’t be it. Kay is a bit much, too. Or at least, I thought he would be a bit much for Dilys until she told Papa that she wanted to marry him.” Delyth rested her elbows on the table and her chin in her cupped palms. “They thought I’d want to marry Kay, you know.”
Cherry’s eyebrow went up. “Who?”
“Do they know you?”
Delyth snickered for a moment, but too soon the snickers died. “They thought we would be more compatible. Whatever that means.”
Cherry leaned her own cheek on her palm and pondered that. She wished she could tell Delyth what they meant, but … well, she’d never met this particular Prince. Or any other, for that matter. “Well, if your sister is the type to think that George is a bit much, maybe they thought that being royal would be a bit much for her, too. Maybe they thought you would be able to handle it better.”
“Maybe …” Delyth mused. “Maybe that’s all it was.”
“I’m sure that’s all it was. Besides, aren’t you glad that your parents don’t have you locked down? Who wants to be locked down when you’re fifteen?”
“I think Dindrane knew since she was twelve,” Delyth mused.
“Maybe, but not to be mean, Delyth, how well did that work out for her?”
“Wouldn’t you rather have a choice? Get to chart your own course, rather than have it all planned for you? I know I’m always more comfortable on the open seas than in the channels.”
Delyth cocked her head to one side. “Huh?”
Cherry sighed. “When you’re on the open sea, you can sail wherever you want — I mean, within reason, you need to make sure you hit land often enough to resupply, but other than that? The world is your oyster. In the channels, you have to be careful, because if you don’t keep to the exact route, your ship could run aground or hit a reef or, you know, other nasty things.”
“Keeping to the route …” Delyth murmured. “Why does Dilys want that?”
“Couldn’t tell you. I make it a policy to not try to figure out other people’s siblings. I have enough problems with my own.” She poked Delyth. “And speaking of which, want to go win all of Jack’s takings from him? He must have worked up a pile by now.”
Delyth blinked, jaw falling — then she laughed. “Why the hell not!”
And Cherry grinned. “That’s my girl! Let’s do this!”