The greenhouse glass shimmered in the late afternoon sun. Rainer paused with a hand poised to knock, trying to summon the courage to rat out his best friend. He took no satisfaction in it, but his job was to protect Cecilia and over the years that job had mostly required protecting her from herself.
He rapped on the glass.
“Come in, it’s open.”
Rainer hesitated before stepping into the Reznik estate greenhouse. Inside, the air was more humid, but slightly cooler than the sweltering sun outside.
The huntmaster looked up from pruning rose bushes, wiping dirt-smudged hands on his apron. Leo Reznik cultivated a fearsome reputation, but Rainer had spent more time at the Reznik estate over the past few years than his own, so he’d had a more intimate view of the man. It was a well-kept secret that when the huntmaster wasn’t training Olney’s army or strategizing over the conflict with neighboring Argaria, he tried to keep up his late wife’s garden.
Rainer had grown taller and broader than the man he idolized his whole youth, but still felt intimidated in the huntmaster’s presence.
He clapped a hand on Rainer’s shoulder. “I wasn’t expecting you, Rainer.”
Aunt Clara looked up from where she stepped out from behind the large rose bush and grinned at Rainer. She’d had a hand in raising him and cultivating his love of cooking. Cecilia had never been a willing student for Clara, but Rainer took to the kitchen immediately. He loved the focus required, and how he could make something from nothing. Experimenting with cooking and baking had become one of his most reliable outlets.
“I wasn’t planning on being back so soon but—” Rainer hesitated. He knew Cecilia didn’t understand what she’d be opening herself up to. While he liked her dress, he was certain people at court would think its sheer skirt was obscene, even with the leggings and boots beneath it.
The huntmaster looked at him expectantly.
“Cece showed me her Godsball dress, and it’s not entirely appropriate. I’m concerned that with all the scrutiny she’ll damage her reputation or be hurt by the court’s reaction.”
Aunt Clara’s hands came to her hips. Her frown was remarkably like the huntmaster’s. “Now, wait a minute. I know you have quite a few lady friends, Rainer McKay, but I’m uncertain you’re up to date on ladies’ fashions. What’s wrong with her dress?”
Rainer’s mind spun in ten different directions. He’d prepared exactly what he was going to say—gone over it four times before walking over from his apartment—but now the words all felt wrong. What if he was overreacting? What if he wasn’t and even her father couldn’t wrangle her? What if the huntmaster saw him going behind Cece’s back as a betrayal?
If Cecilia was there, she would tell him to focus on his breathing. He sucked in a ragged breath. “Well, to start, her costume is to honor the Storm Prince.”
The huntmaster scrubbed a hand over his face. “Clastor, deliver me from my daughter.”
Rainer quickly explained what the dress looked like.
Aunt Clara looked surprised but also a bit amused. “She’s always marched to the beat of her own drum.”
The huntmaster looked remarkably calm. “I was concerned this might happen, and I made arrangements.”
“You had another dress made?” Rainer said.
The relief nearly knocked him over. He didn’t realize how worried he was that Cecilia wouldn’t be accepted until then. Rainer feared her tears almost as much as her wounds. At least with a wound, he knew how to clean it. With her tears came a flood of emotions, and nothing he could do but hold her hand and search for the right thing to say. More often, he’d say the wrong thing, which would result in a whole new flood of tears.
“There’s nothing that Cece does that I don’t know about,” the huntmaster said.
Aunt Clara rolled her eyes. “I told you to let her express herself. Honestly, the two of you think you can save her from every experience, but you’ll only crush her. She cannot learn unless you let her. If you save her from every mistake, she’ll only resent your coddling. It would do you both well to remember she’s no longer a child, and she’s going to need to trust herself over these next few years, or have you both forgotten that the Gauntlet will require tremendous intuition for a witch?”
Guilt swelled in Rainer’s chest. Aunt Clara wasn’t a witch, but she had been around them enough to know that summoning magic required intuitive trust. Would Rainer’s doubt really chip away at Cecilia’s ability to trust herself?
“You want me to let her embarrass herself? After that spectacle she pulled yesterday?” the huntmaster countered.
Aunt Clara crossed her arms and stared her brother down. “I’d have you give her the vote of confidence that you trust her to make her own mistakes and survive them. I doubt you’d be so concerned if she was a son.”
The huntmaster blanched, turning away from Rainer and Aunt Clara.
Aunt Clara turned to Rainer, her hands still poised on her hips. “And you had better remember your loyalty, Rainer. She’s your responsibility, and breaking her trust right before you head out on the road is a foolish move.” She looked from Rainer to her brother. “I suspect you’ll both regret this, but clearly I’m outvoted.”
Shoving her pruning shears to the huntmaster, she stormed out of the greenhouse.
The huntmaster patted Rainer on the shoulder. “You did the right thing, Rainer. Cecilia will get over it quickly.”
Rainer appreciated the reassurance, but he left the greenhouse feeling that he’d made a grave mistake. Cecilia’s temper burned hot and fast, and fizzled quickly, but Rainer’s guilt would last for weeks.
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