Hollowick rubbed at his temples, willing his headache to subside, even as he knew his efforts were in vain. He simply would not feel himself until he was home again—and that would not be for weeks, possibly months.
“Are you all right, Holly?”
Guiltily, Hollowick dropped his hands and smiled reassuringly at his sister. “I’m fine, Will; just a headache. Nothing a cup of tea won’t fix, I promise.” Willa frowned at him, but said nothing, only returned to staring broodingly out the window. “Come now, beautiful bride,” Hollowick teased gently. “We both know all too well that rumors blow everything out of proportion. I’m sure King Galus will be marvelous.”
Willa shot him an unimpressed look. “So marvelous that mother and father did not give me a chance to meet him before they signed my life away—were, in fact, very careful not to give me a chance. Now, it is too late.”
“No, it is not. Betrothal gifts can be returned. Nothing is done that cannot be undone until you say ‘I do’. That is what this visit is for, a chance for you and your betrothed to finally get acquainted. If you wind up clashing horribly, well, that is a betrothal broken.
Giving an unladylike snort, Willa said, “Please, Holly. We both know this is a formality, a token appeasement; I will be getting married to King Galus next year, no matter what.”
“If you hate him, we will run away. I will not permit both of us to lead miserable lives, Will.” He smiled weakly. “One of us is enough.”
“You should run away,” Will said, scowling. “I hear King Lyus has a swordwick for a right hand—they even say the man is Lyus’ bastard son. You could go there; maybe he’d accept other swordwicks.”
Hollowick shrugged. “I’ve considered it.” He did not bother to add that he had only ever considered it half-heartedly, even resentfully. Home might not have been the happiest of places, but he disliked that in order to be happy, he had to slink off as if he were ashamed.
In the same way, he hated that in order to be there with Willa, he had to pretend not to be wick. It chafed, not being allowed to be himself. So far as he was concerned, the past was the past. It was stupid to cling to events that were long past and could not be changed, to base opinions on old superstitions.
Stupid to hate him, and other swordwicks, because of events a century old.
One hundred years ago, the Great Empire had fractured, the different Houses fighting amongst themselves and tearing one empire into thirteen kingdoms by the end. Back then, swordwicks had not been a bad thing. They had, quite contrary to modern opinion, been respected as proper wicks and even something more for being equal parts warrior and wick.
Then the Duke of Corley had started a war that broke an empire and had done so by way of an army of swordwicks. Hundreds of thousands of people, hundreds of villages and towns and cities, had fallen beneath the might of Corley’s Black Army. Historians said the problem of swordwicks had started before that and merely culminated in the Black Army, but from all that Hollowick had read, the Black Army was the crux of it. Ever since those dark, violent days, any wick with a black familiar had been regarded with fear, contempt, dislike, and mistrust.
In recent years it had become better—Willa was correct when she said that the King of Lyus had a rather notorious swordwick for his right hand, but she was also right in that the swordwick was the King’s son. Otherwise, most swordwicks most often took up mercenary and similar such work, unable to find more respectable employment. More often than not, they were hired by towns to rid them of any wild dragons in the area then sent on their way again. Better to lose a few swordwick than real wick.
Hollowick had conceded before, to Willa, that it probably did not help their cause that swordwicks continued to dress in all black, but he also maintained that they were what they were, and swordwicks had always worn black—their familiars were black after all, when otherwise the color of a wick could literally be anything.
If he were not forced to pretend to be a wickless citizen, he would be wearing his black leathers and tunic now, proudly riding Pence alongside the carriage. Instead, to support his sister, he was wearing dark green and stuck inside the damned carriage.
A grade five wick, and he was forced to be Prince Hollis instead of Prince Hollowick. It left a bitter taste in his mouth.
Never mind that his head hurt something fierce because his familiar was miles away back home, just as wretched and miserable. Wick and familiar were not meant to be so separated. He was not used to his head being so empty. For all that he complained, he liked Pence’s dirty jokes and ribald comments. He wouldn’t have a unicorn familiar if he didn’t. And like any wick, he was long used never to being alone in his own head.
But if he was supposed to be pretending not to be wick, then it was all to the good that Pence was far away. It would make it easier to mask his wick, even if he was already sick of the damned headache. He wanted Pence, his beautiful black unicorn familiar with horn and hooves the color of steel.
“Oh, Holly. I hope that something good comes your way for once. I’m proud of you, no matter what anyone else says. You’re magnificent. Just look at the dragons you kill and those bandits you took care of last month. If stupid King Toad Face has a problem with swordwicks then I am calling off the engagement, consequences be damned.”
Hollowick laughed. “Now, now, Will. You should be a Queen. If no other good comes from your marriage, you will at least no longer have to listen to Mother and Father. You can tell them to take themselves off and there will be nothing they can do about it. How delightful will that be? Come now, you must admit the thought is sweet.”
“Very,” Willa conceded with a sigh. She reached up to fuss with the artful arrangement of her golden curls. “Do you think he’ll like me?” she asked softly. So confident, his sister, until her looks came up. “I’m not—I mean—”
“You’re not skinny to the point you look starved?” Hollowick finished for her, annoyed all over again at their old-fashioned, close-minded, and unbending parents. “Only nobles would think the starved look is attractive. If you were not my sister, and I had any interest in women, I would make a point of cornering you on a balcony.”
Willa laughed, exactly as he had hoped she would. “Indeed. But I am your sister, and you do like your lovers to be very pretty and very masculine.” Hollowick rolled his eyes, but did not reply.
Secretly, he envied Willa her engagement. She might not want it—and it certainly was no pleasure being suddenly bound to a stranger—but at least their parents acknowledged her, thought she was worth something. At least they were trying to give her a future, and ideally, she was being given a chance at happiness.
He was a prince, if the youngest of three. He should be out doing things for his kingdom—an ambassador, a liaison, a military leader, something. Instead, he had turned out a swordwick, and his most vital duty was killing the wild dragons in the woods. Certainly it was important, and he liked doing it, but he was painfully aware his parents generally preferred he vanished into the woods so they could more easily pretend they only had two children.
Shaking his head at himself, tired of his gloomy thoughts—especially since he had come along to help keep Willa’s spirits up—he tried to think optimistically. He’d never visited any of the other kingdoms, and anything was possible. He might have to lie about what he was, and he missed Pence, but perhaps the chance he’d always wanted was just waiting in Draius for him to take.
For Willa, too. Being far from the popular ideal of a princess, she had her own travails to escape. And envious he might be, her life was one big upheaval right then. He wanted her to be happy, because gods knew they were both always miserable and sick of being that way. Willa should be happy. She was a good leader, a good person. She deserved more than their stiff parents and their elder brother, who was too under the thumb of their parents to ever support his siblings.
He sighed as the driver wrapped on the roof of the carriage to warn them that their arrival was eminent. “This is it, Will. Show them how amazing their future Queen is. I vow they’ll all love you before your welcome fete ends at some ungodly hour of the morning.”
“I will settle for being liked,” Willa replied, even though it wasn’t true. She badly wanted was a good husband. She’d been burned by potential beaus before and dreaded turning out like their parents. Princess and future Queen, all Willa really wanted was a happy family.
Hollowick silently vowed she would find it, or else.
He did not bother to think about his own wants and wishes, preferring to pretend he had given up on that ages ago. Still, after Willa was happy, perhaps he would run away after all. He should be happy at home, but without Willa, his own kingdom would not really feel like home.
The time for thinking was suddenly over, as the carriage came to a sudden halt. Willa squeaked in panic and fussed with her hair, her gown, her jewels—and then the door opened, and a hand extended to help her down. She smiled nervously at Hollowick, then pasted on what she called her Royal Smile and was gone.
“Princess Willa Constantina Amadia Grandine,” a herald announced, the words nearly drowned out by clapping and cheering as she was welcomed.
A good start, Hollowick thought, smiling faintly. He waited until the noise had died slightly then climbed from the carriage himself. “Don’t bother,” he said to the herald with a smile as he drew breath to announce Hollowick. “I would prefer the focus remain on my sister.”
“Yes, Highness,” the herald replied, returning the smile.
Turning away, Hollowick glanced around the crowd of people in the lush garden where Willa’s welcome party was taking place. A beautiful garden, and the nobles in attendance did not look so different from those back home. A palace was a palace, he supposed, right down to its inhabitants.
He was glad that people seemed genuinely excited by Willa’s presence. Well… he frowned. Everyone but the King, it seemed. He was putting a good face on it, but Hollowick was always acutely aware of disappointment when he saw it.
Galus is all crushed his wife has real meat on her bones. Shows what a boy he is, despite being older than you, as well as King. Why he thinks he prefers pixies, I will never know.
That’s Galus, as dense as rock.
Hollowick jerked, surprised to hear voices in his head. He looked slowly around and froze, surprised. Given that he had Galus’ black hair and blue eyes, the tall, slender beauty of a man could only have been a relative of Galus. Hollowick remembered then that Galus did have a younger brother, and one who was wick at that. He really wished now that he had paid more attention and made proper note when someone had undoubtedly informed him that Galus’ wick brother had a unicorn familiar.
Of course he’d have a unicorn familiar, why would he have anything else? Hollowick barely bit back a groan.
He was a grade five mindwick, which meant he was a top level wick and possessed the ability to connect to the minds of other wicks and connect the minds of other wicks to each other. It was not a very flashy wick, but it was useful. Or, it would be, if he ever had real reason to use it past the mundane requests of his parents to reach another wick elsewhere in the castle.
In the heat of battle, it would be damned useful to connect the minds of the wicks he fought alongside, but the most company he ever had was that of soldiers on the rare occasion a dragon was too much for one person to handle. Being a mindwick with a unicorn familiar, he had discovered a disconcerting ability to naturally overhear other wicks with unicorn familiars. Usually, he had to use his wick, his energy, to connect to other minds, and use even more energy to connect other wicks to each other.
But when the wick in question had a unicorn familiar, he could hear them as naturally as he could hear Pence. He had to expend energy not to hear them. All the reading he had done never mentioned the tendency; he was never quite certain why he was able to do it. He wished he couldn’t—and never more than right that very moment.
That is definitely one well-endowed princess.
Stop molesting my future sister-in-law with your eyes, Diamond.
Hollowick watched surreptitiously as the prince glared at his unicorn.
As already stated, ol’ Gally is an idiot. A woman like that need and wants a man, Diamond said with a snort.
You’re a unicorn, not a man, the prince replied. Stop being a pervert where our new Queen is concerned. Such low behavior—
Is completely typical of me and of you, so shove off, Diamond replied cheerfully before continuing more sourly. Your brother needs to stop moping; she’s no idiot and is completely aware of what he’s thinking. Honestly, why is he the King?
The prince shook his head and sighed. He’s a good king, and you know it. He’s just not used to having to work for his women; I can already see she’ll be good for him, if we can just convince her to stay. A smart woman, however—good gods, is that her brother?
Hollowick realized too late he had been seen and did not have time to turn away and pretend he hadn’t been staring. Served him right for gawking and eavesdropping. Caught, he smiled and offered a polite half bow in their direction.
My oh my, the prince thought.
And you say I have all the dirty thoughts, Diamond said with another amused snort as they walked over to Hollowick.
Right, because I’m the one already imagining how he would look with his ass—
Hollowick flushed and hoped they did not notice, or that they simply attributed it to excitement. Not that he would mind the prince doing things to his ass, per se—not at all. Willa had been correct, after all. He did like men, and he liked them pretty. And anyone with a unicorn familiar was almost guaranteed to be a good time.
Legend had it unicorn familiars always came to the pure of heart, mind, and spirit. Hollowick’s friend Toki had always laughed and laughed whenever someone said this. He had always shook his head and said that in his experience, anyone possessing a unicorn familiar usually also possessed a healthy and enthusiastic libido. The misnomer ‘pure,’ he had theorized, probably came from the fact that the old word for it could also be translated as ‘healthy’ or ‘lively’, the belief being that a body free of impurities, or ‘pure’, was a healthy body. As often as unicorns ‘frolicked,’ Toki had always concluded dryly, they must be very healthy indeed.
“Hullo,” the prince said cheerfully, extending a hand and shaking Hollowick’s firmly. “You must be Princess Willa’s brother. I am afraid I do not recall your name, which is terribly rude of me, I do apologize. Did they not announce it?” He started to turn to the herald, frowning.
“I bid him not,” Hollowick said hastily. “The focus should be on my sister, not me. My name is Holl—Hollis,” he said, stumbling over his name. He was not used to being Hollis; he had been Hollowick since he was twelve.
“Fenwick,” came the cheerful reply. “A pleasure to meet you. I hope that you and your sister enjoy your time here with us—enough that she wants to stay.” He laughed and winked.
Not likely when your idiot brother is letting the starving pixies flirt openly with him while his bride-to-be is standing right there next to him.
Hollowick glanced toward his sister and the king, scowling when he saw that behind her royal smile she already looked dejected. Turning back to Fenwick, he said, “If you will pardon me, my sister is looking anxious. I should try to help her relax and actually be of use while I am here.”
“We’ll come along,” Fenwick said and fell into step beside him.
I bet you could put him to all sorts of uses, eh, Fen?
Shut it, heifer, Fenwick retorted.
Hollowick bit back a groan and wished fervently he were back home—or that Pence were there so he could have enough wick to block them out. Though, if Pence were there, maybe he would not need to block them out.
Reaching his sister, Hollowick kissed her cheek and said, “Hey, Will. You already look at home. Majesty, I am Hollis.” He smiled congenially, but with a hint of teeth. “I have come to be certain you are worthy of my sister.” Because King he might be, Hollowick would destroy him if he hurt Willa.
“Holly, stop being protective,” Willa said, patting his cheek fondly—but with enough sting to tell him she wasn’t joking. “I can handle myself.”
“I do not doubt it,” Fenwick interjected, smiling in a cheerful way Hollowick sensed was natural for Fenwick rather than forced. “But can you handle my brother? He is worse than a spoiled thoroughbred. He requires beatings twice daily, thrice on Sundays. When he really gets to be unbearable, he must be shoved into the garden pond. It’s quite a lot of work and rude to demand a lady tend it, but I fear the burden of his discipline will fall to you, fair princess. Do you think that you are up to the challenge?”
Willa lifted her chin and raised her fan, peering at Galus with narrowed eyes. Then she closed the fan with a snap and lightly rested her hands on her hips. “I see it being no more strenuous than growing up with two brothers and the hunting dogs they insisted upon letting inside the palace. I believe I am up to the challenge.”
Galus rolled his eyes, but smiled while Fenwick cackled and held out his hand to Willa, kissing her knuckles when she obligingly gave her hand. “If you actually throw him in the pond, fair princess, I will be your most loyal admirer until the day I die,” Fenwick declared.
From all the rumors I’ve heard, she might actually do it, Diamond said. I wonder if it’s true she clocked the Duke of Belle.
Hollowick barely kept from laughing, remembering the moment fondly. It was only one reason of many that their parents had arranged Willa’s marriage while keeping her in the dark about it—but the odious Duke had deserved it, and no one other than their parents had been sorry to see him pass out after suffering a broken nose inflicted by the princess.
He really wished that Fenwick and Diamond did not talk so much. More than anything, he wished Pence were there, so he could talk too much.
Pasting on his own royal smile, he excused himself to get food and drink. At the buffet table, he’d only just started to look over the food when the man on the other side of the table caught his attention. “You’re a swordwick!” he said excitedly.
The man startled, then eyed him warily. “Yes-uh, Highness?” He bowed hastily. “I am Captain Roswick, in charge of the swordwicks boarding here at the palace.”
Elation like he’d never felt in his life burst through Hollowick. There was a Captain of swordwicks that boarded at the castle? “You have an entire team of swordwicks? But—that’s splendid.”
Roswick’s wariness only increased, and Hollowick could not blame him. “Yes, but we’re only here for a period of three years to tend to the dragons that are exceptionally bad in the surrounding woods. The late king signed the initial contract; it ends this year.”
“Ah,” Hollowick said, disappointment replacing the elation. He did not know why he had thought they might be more. “Still, it must be nice to have a team when fighting dragons.”
“Yes,” Roswick said, frowning at him, confused but thoughtful. “I’m sorry for being rude, Highness, but—are you wick?”
“No,” Hollowick said, the lie killing him because he was not ashamed, damn it, but Willa was his weakness, and his parents knew that. He would not let his pride ruin this chance for her. “But—there is a swordwick back home. He does admirable work, whatever anyone else might say.” And how stupid did he feel, speaking so about himself. He fervently hoped all of this was worth it, and that Willa wound up with a good husband and a good home.
“I see,” Roswick said, eyeing him thoughtfully. “Well, if he gets tired of where he is, tell him that he is welcome to join us, Highness. We could always use another good sword.”
Hollowick nodded, the words stuck in his throat at first. “I will let him know,” he finally said, smiling.
Roswick nodded and returned the smile, then moved away. Hollowick followed him, seeing where he rejoined five other swordwicks who were gathered in their own private circle at the edge of the garden. Isolated, like always. Hollowick stifled a sigh and went to rejoin his own circle.
Fenwick met him halfway, however, eyes bright with mischief. Diamond, oddly, was not with him. Their thoughts were also curiously quiet, which was a relief and yet somehow a disappointment—he liked having other voices in his head. If he didn’t, he would hate being a mindwick. “I thought we would leave the tentatively happy couple alone for a bit. They do not need their little brothers watching every move. Merely most of them.” He winked.
Hollowick laughed. “Where is Diamond?” Too late, he realized Fenwick had never actually gotten around to telling him Diamond’s name.
But Fenwick only rolled his eyes and said, “He was bored and went to the stables. I shan’t ruin your appetite by telling you more.”
“I see,” Hollowick said, amused. Unicorns. “Very well, where shall we take ourselves so that we do not manage the happy couple?”
Fenwick linked their arms together and escorted him from the garden, nodding and smiling absently at the people they passed. When they finally slipped free of the party and wound up in a quiet little nook filled with rosebushes, Fenwick smiled and said, “There, much better. Aside from attending when family requires it, you do not seem much for parties.”
Hollowick looked at him with surprise. “I’m not, actually. It’s unfortunate I am that transparent about it, however.” The damndest part was that he did like people and parties—it was simply that he was never really a part of anything because he was a swordwick. Now, forced into a lie, he still felt too uncomfortable to enjoy himself.
“Not at all,” Fenwick soothed. “I simply am not much for them, myself. I know the look. Diamond and I slip away all the time; crowds are awkward for such large familiars, and the more people I’m around, the more likely I am to be overcome by a fit of Seeing.”
“See—oh!” Hollowick said. “You’re a crystalwick.”
Fenwick smiled. “Precisely so. Curiously, I’ve not seen you yet, though I have seen things which definitely reference your sister. You must be a very quiet presence.”
Hollowick laughed. “Maybe. It’s certainly true I’m quiet compared to the rest of my family.”
“Indeed,” Fenwick said, the tone of his smile suddenly shifting, eyes taking on a gleam that Hollowick knew very well indeed—he was usually the one wearing it. “Yet I bet in the right situations, you can be plenty noisy.”
He moved closer, and Hollowick stepped back, allowing Fenwick to crowd him up against what seemed to be the back of a gazebo. Smirking, Hollowick asked, “Are you trying to find out if I’m a screamer, brother?”
“Maybe,” Fenwick drawled, obviously pleased by the way Hollowick did not mince words.
Hollowick laughed. “Now, what sort of impression would I make, letting you have at me that easily? Should I call you little brother or big brother?”
Fenwick snickered. “I think I’m older than you, to judge by what your sister was saying. But we’re not brothers yet and will never be blood brothers.” He moved just that slightest bit closer, “And I think you would make an excellent impression.”
“I am not that easy,” Hollowick replied, even if he was almost that easy. He pushed Fenwick lightly away, and strode past him—but let himself be dragged back and gave back full measure when Fenwick stole a kiss. He rather appreciated the lack of fuss and fancy words himself.
But he hated a lack of honesty. Breaking the kiss, he gave Fenwick another light shove. “That’s enough of that.”
“For now,” Fenwick replied.
Hollowick did not reply, but he could not resist ensuring Fenwick enjoyed the sight of his ass as he walked away. He shouldn’t, not while he was living a lie, not when he was unintentionally eavesdropping. Flirting was the very last thing he should have been doing or even considering doing. But he could still feel that kiss on his lips, and he could already tell it was not the sort of kiss to be easily forgotten.