Rainer shifted anxiously from foot to foot in front of the large windows in Raymond McKay’s study. It never ceased to frustrate Rainer how he could face down fearsome opponents with nothing but his wits and a sword, but a simple conversation with his adoptive father made him feel like a child who couldn’t stop slouching.
A thread of calm spread through his chest.
Great. Just great. He was so anxious that Cecilia was trying to comfort him through their bond. If he didn’t settle down she’d come looking for him.
The den door swung open with a creak. Raymond McKay strode in and sat down behind his large wooden desk. He gestured to the chair across from him.
Rainer braced himself for an interrogation. He tried to look both attentive and relaxed as he sat.
“You had a meeting with the huntmaster.”
Rainer did not know how his father found out, but he didn’t need the man sniffing around the information that Rainer was still reeling from.
“Did you have a question?” Rainer said. “Sir.” He hated himself every time he bent to his father. He knew satisfying the man was impossible, but he couldn’t stop trying.
Raymond’s face drew down into a scowl. He rang the bell on his desk and Ruth, their house manager, appeared at the door. He nodded at Rainer.
“We’ll take some tea, please, Ruth,” Rainer said.
His father loved to flex his power, knowing how it made Rainer so uncomfortable to command the staff around. He waited for the door to close before leaning forward, elbows resting on his desk. “Now tell me about this private meeting.”
Rainer shook his head. “It was a personal matter. Nothing you need to know.”
Raymond opened his mouth to argue but the den door swung open. Ruth crossed the room and set tea on the side table. She poured Raymond his extra strong tea, no cream or sugar, and added a lump of sugar, sprig of mint, and squeeze of lemon to Rainer’s. She winked at Rainer as she turned to leave.
“So it was about your charge, Lady Cecilia,” Raymond said.
Rainer waved a hand. “Tomorrow evening will be her formal entrance into the court as an eligible marriage prospect. Her father—” Rainer cleared his throat. “The huntmaster simply wanted to make sure that I would be vigilant to all the new attention she’s likely to receive, especially from some of the less honorable hunters and guardians she’s bested.”
Rainer offered that much so his father wouldn’t look for more. Cecilia was soft-hearted and romantic and her father was concerned that someone would take advantage of her, but that was only one part of their conversation.
The huntmaster was more of a father to Rainer than Raymond ever would, but that didn’t bother the man. Raymond was only truly envious of the hunt master’s stature at court. He didn’t like that Leo, a warrior who’d worked his way through the ranks, was held in such high esteem, while Raymond, a merchant who had built himself up from nothing, was seen as greedy.
Raymond couldn’t comprehend that it wasn’t his wealth that people didn’t respect, but his constant social climbing. People knew when they were being used, and his father was the fairest-weather friend at court.
Raymond shook his head. “You’re lying.”
“I’m not at liberty to discuss private conversations I’ve had with the huntmaster. Not even with you.” Rainer groaned internally. He sounded like a child boasting about a secret.
Raymond smiled, slid open a desk drawer, and pulled out an envelope. He held the paper up to the light so Rainer could see his name, written in his late mother’s neat handwriting.
The grief was a punch to the gut. “What is that?”
Raymond sighed. “Your mother left a few letters to you tucked in her things. I recently found this and several others, all labeled for each birthday since she’s passed.”
Rainer couldn’t decide if he believed the man or not. It seemed unlikely his mother would trust Raymond not to leverage those letters as a way to control him. She’d seen it happen enough while she was alive.
Maura McKay had given him so much, raised him like her own. She’d never once acted like her love was something that needed to be earned. Her behavior was in stark contrast to her husband’s tough love approach. She’d been the first warmth in Rainer’s life and her death two years ago, still felt like a wound that never quite healed.
Rainer couldn’t seem too eager for the letter, but he couldn’t stop himself from reaching toward it, eager for any wisdom her words might lend him as he set out to begin the Gauntlet. When Rainer was young, he’d been so desperate for the chance to prove himself worthy by completing the Gauntlet. He and Cecilia were so in sync. He was certain they’d be the ones to do it. Now that they were finally about to leave on their first trip, he couldn’t stop going back to Maura’s words to him whenever he sulked about not being able to go out on Gauntlet runs until Cecilia was eighteen. Don’t be in such a hurry to grow up, sweet boy. Honor earned in the light will never be as valuable as the love you’re given now while still in the dark.
He understood what she was saying, but he couldn’t stop chasing glory because it was what everyone expected of him. He was the best swordsman in his guardian class and spent all his free time training in new techniques. The pursuit of this one goal was a weight on his back that he’d shoulder until he proved himself.
Raymond spun the letter between his fingers, his gaze shifting to the fire.
Everything Rainer told his father was true. There was just a lot he left unsaid. Raymond could always tell when he was lying, so there wasn’t a point in making something up. Instead, Rainer resorted to withholding the most important information—the very information his opportunist father would have loved to know.
“Fine. He wanted to drive home the importance of keeping Cece safe on our first Gauntlet run. Cal Bennington and Sylvie Brett will accompany us on the first trip for additional support. I wasn’t happy about it, but he’s the huntmaster. What he says goes.”
Raymond scowled. “It’s not good for him to still doubt you at this phase.”
Eyeing the envelope in his father’s hand, Rainer leaned forward in his chair. “I think it’s less that he doesn’t trust me as he worries for her…recklessness.”
“Which you’ve stoked in her.”
“With my vigilance?”
“With your leniency,” Raymond said. “I’ve been telling you for years that you’re too soft with that girl.”
Rainer rubbed his hand over the back of his neck. It seemed there were endless ways that he could fall short and Raymond delighted in pointing them out.
His father stood, gaze fixed on the fireplace and Rainer’s heart leapt into his throat. He leaned forward and snatched the letter, ignoring the look of outrage that tore across Raymond’s face.
“You have every advantage. Natural talent that other guardians would kill for. Wealth. Access to the best swordsmanship tutors. Even the attention of the huntmaster—but you’re still so ordinary. What a disappointment you’ve become. Thank the gods your mother isn’t here to see it,” Raymond said.
The words sliced into Rainer like a well-placed blade. Turning his back on his father, he stalked out of the room, slamming the door behind him and ignoring his father calling after him. He’d likely pay for it later, but he didn’t care. The urge to work his body to exhaustion, to push out the fury in the only way that worked was a pulse beneath his skin driving him toward the one place where he knew he’d find the kind of fight he could actually win.
He headed straight for the fighting rings. At that time of day, only hunters who wanted extra training time would be around, but Rainer was certain he could find someone to spar with him to blow off some steam.
The dressing lodge was almost empty, but he found one hunter leaning against a grain-filled dummy, catching his breath. He was shorter and leaner than Rainer, but his tan arms were free of scars, so he must have been skilled enough to land more blows than he received in training.
The constant assessment of foes was exhausting, but it was an old guardian instinct that never relented.
Nodding toward the fighting ring, Rainer pulled linen from the wooden shelf and wrapped his knuckles. “Care to try your hand at someone who can hit back?”
The hunter straightened, turning to face him head-on. “I’ve seen you fight before. You’re very good.”
“Then why are you smiling?” Rainer snapped.
The hunter grinned, a flash of mischief in his hazel eyes. “Because I’m better.”
Rainer barked out a startled laugh as he finished wrapping his knuckles. “May the best man win.”
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