“Your highness,” Katarina said in a clear address to himself. “I hear you’ve travelled through imperial lands for some months. What is your current outlook on it?” Although she spoke Udynean, the musical hint of her own language whispered through. A much softer melody than the last hedgewitch Hamish had met.
He swallowed the wine and considered the past eight weeks of travel from the distant port of Haalabof to here, of the seemingly endless roads winding along the lands and the villages small enough to barely warrant a mention on a map. “It has certainly been an experience.” He’d been propositioned at least seven times along the way. Maybe even more that had been too subtle for him to notice.
The hedgewitch’s eyes almost sparkled. “You simply must give me details, your highness. It’s so rare to have an outside opinion on Udynea.”
Hamish opened his mouth, his agreement balancing on his tongue, only to remain silent as Darshan laid a bejewelled hand atop his.
“I’m sure my husband is most eager to oblige the request, Madam Hedgewitch, but perhaps another time would be more suited?”
Her lashes fluttering, Katarina lowered her head. “Of course, vris Mhanek.” She picked at the rest of her meal, perhaps looking for a reason to remain silent as she vibrated with an energy that reminded Hamish of his nephews when they sorely wanted to natter people’s ears off.
A pang of longing turned his stomach. A yearning to embrace his sisters, to hear his nephews scheming and his niece’s laughter. He would even take his brother’s good-natured ribbing just for a chance to hear his voice.
Hamish swallowed, blinking furiously to stem the tears threatening to spill. He hadn’t expected to feel homesick, but he’d never been beyond Tirglas before, hadn’t even been more than a week’s travel from Mullhind Castle for years. Now it was months away and there was more land to cover before they reached their destination.
A whole continent between him and his family; people he would never get to see again thanks to his mother’s poisonous ire.
“Do eat up, brother dear,” Onella purred, jolting Hamish from his thoughts. His sister-in-law gestured to the plate before Darshan, the rings adorning her fingers glittering in the candlelight. She had changed gowns, or at least the filmy topmost layer, and her arm showed no sign of Darshan’s attack. “All that dancing must’ve worked up quite the appetite. I can’t imagine the poxy inns you’ve stopped at during your travels had meals sufficient for a man of your power. You must be ravenous.”
Darshan smiled. Hamish wasn’t sure how his husband managed to seemingly detach the expression from his face, but the sight prickled his skin. “I think I’ll pass, dear half-sister.”
“But isn’t quail your favourite?” Onella pressed. “Did all those stodgy meals up north affect your palate?” She leant closer to one of the men flanking her and continued on in a loud whisper. “I hear they do ghastly things like stuff sheep stomachs and eat them.”
“They do indeed,” Katarina piped up as grumbles of distaste trembled along the table. “And the stomachs of cows and pigs.”
“There’s little from an animal we dinnae eat or use,” Hamish added, ferocious pride for his homeland’s self-sufficiency puffing his chest. “And what’s left goes to feed our dogs and pigs. We dinnae let a thing go to waste.”
“Clearly, trade relations with a superior people isn’t listed as one of those things.” Onella sipped at her wine, her gaze boring into him. “But I suppose you’re not privy to such matters, being dead and all.”
A woman part way down the table flung her head back and guffawed.
“He seems very lively for a dead man,” pointed out the woman sitting next to her as her neighbour continued to wheeze.
“Clearly not in the literal sense,” Onella said, her gaze remaining firmly on Hamish. “But it would seem that the news of how the current queen of Tirglas disowned her younger son hasn’t reached all present company.”
Darshan straightened in his chair. “Has it not?” He took up his glass and tapped his forefinger against it, waiting whilst a servant topped up the wine. “What is the rumour mill coming to if it cannot keep up with such trivial concerns?”