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These are the facts. Essek Thelyss is a traitor to the Dynasty. He has collaborated with the Cerberus Assembly on dunamantic research. His loyalties are an entirely unknown quantity, and likely nonexistent. He is, above all else, a liar.
Also, he all but lives in the neighborhood now, and it’s very uncomfortable.
Astrid ducks her head down to glare at the pavement as she passes Bren’s place. Last week, on the way to the market, she had made the mistake of taking a peek at one of the windows and made eye contact with the drow. Or rather, with the sun elf she knows is the drow underneath. Why Bren takes the risk of having him over so often is beyond her. Why he agrees is beyond her. If he’s caught, there will be hell to pay - he must know that.
No, there must be a reason. He’s up to something. High-level government spies do not simply decide to stop scheming when their positions change. It’s the magic, she suspects; Bren has put together a fair number of spells of his own design, and anyone inclined to harness the arcane would be interested. Or perhaps he’s bleeding Bren of information about the Assembly. She pulls her coat tighter around her shoulders. He could be learning about her own movements, waiting for an opportune time to strike, and she would never know.
He’s using Bren for something. Of that, she’s certain. And when whatever house of cards he’s built falls down around his shoulders, he’ll cut and run without a second thought.
It’s still on her mind when she makes it to her own doorstep, eyes lingering for a moment on the vibrant, yellow hyacinths in the window box - a parting gift from their time in the Blooming Grove. Astrid had thought they were certainly doomed this past winter, but at the last second, they had sprung back to health as though by magic.
The firbolgs would probably twist that into a metaphor about something or other. Astrid makes a face and pushes through the door.
Wulf is seated in his chair with a book when she enters. She spares him only a passing glance before striding straight past toward the staircase.
“All right,” Wulf calls before she reaches it. “Something’s on your mind. What?”
Astrid lets out an irritated breath as she lets the conversation pull her back into the living room. “That drow,” she admits. “I want to know what his business is with… with this city. He is here far too often.”
She’s already plotting. Contacting either the elf or Bren himself directly is out of the question, but she can pull off some subtle surveillance. The results will not come as quickly as she would like, that way, but it’s the safest route. Spend a few evenings lurking nearby and tail him when he leaves the house, see where he goes. It will give her a lead to follow, at least. She can work from there.
“Thelyss?” Eadwulf says without looking up. “He’s fucking Caleb.”
Astrid's head snaps up. "What?" She rests her satchel on the table before her grip can tear a hole in it. "How do you know?"
Astrid has personally kept eyes their old friend; his treasonous tendencies require it for his own safety as much as hers. But she has yet to come up with that particular tidbit, and spying from the bushes has simply never been Eadwulf's way. Besides, he's claimed time and again to be through with the political game.
Wulf shrugs and flips to the next page. "Asked."
She blinks. "When?"
"Ah…" He looks up from his book, at last, to frown at the calendar on the wall. "A week ago, maybe."
"A week?" Before he can return to his reading, Astrid ducks down into his eyeline with a glare. "You spoke to Bren a week ago?"
"Then how did you--"
"I spoke to Essek."
She does not at all appreciate the laugh she gets for the look on her face.
“You went to Bren’s house,” she says flatly. “Without telling me. What if he had--”
“Don’t be so paranoid,” Wulf says. “I would never go there without backup.”
“Where, then?” she demands.
He shrugs like it’s nothing, but the way he’s retreated behind his book says he knows he’s in trouble. Essek Thelyss, in their house. If anyone had seen--
“Why was he here?” Astrid presses when he fails to elaborate.
Wulf shifts uncomfortably, and she knows she’ll hate the answer. He clears his throat.
“He was helping me with something.”
She raises an eyebrow. “With what?”
He mutters something under his breath, and Astrid leans closer, eyes narrowed. “What was that?”
Wulf sighs, letting the book whump closed in his lap. “Your flowers were dying.”
Her flowers? She turns back to the door with a frown, as though she could see them through the wall.
“Wulf, my flowers have been flourishing since spring.” They’d had a rough winter, to be sure, but ever since the turn of the season-- oh, no. Oh, he wouldn’t. She braces her hands on the arms of his chair. “Wulf,” she repeats pointedly. “My flowers have been flourishing since spring.”
Wulf meets her gaze head-on, looking unimpressed. “Maybe you should thank him, sometime,” he suggests casually. “They look pretty good.”
“What if he was seen?”
“Then he was in disguise. Do you think we’re stupid?”
She certainly thinks they’re something. Astrid pinches the bridge of her nose, squeezing her eyes shut. The headache birthing itself in her temples is bound to take days to wear off. Essek Thelyss, the former Shadowhand, wanted by his own government and under constant threat of assassination from her own superiors, has been tending her garden. For half a year. She doesn’t know what’s worse: that Wulf has been condoning it behind her back, or that she never suspected a thing.
“Fine,” she says thinly, because this is an issue that will take more than a moment’s conversation to resolve. "Thelyss is... with Bren. And he, what, volunteered this information?"
"Told you, I asked."
"You asked if he was in bed with Bren."
"No, I asked if he'd like to get in bed with me."
She groans. "That man is dangerous."
He grins. "Yeah."
Wulf looks at her skeptically. "He still has those little flowery gloves, you know." He wiggles the fingers on one hand to illustrate. “Tools of a cold-blooded killer.”
She levels him with a glare, but it has little impact. Instead, he cocks an eyebrow at her, daring her to ask what he knows she's wondering. She presses her lips together.
"Well?" she asks.
"Well…?" Wulf prompts with infuriating smugness.
Astrid sighs and addresses the ceiling. "Well, did you… what did he say?"
She can hear him grinning. "Told you," he says. "He said he's fucking Caleb."
Astrid has trouble imagining the word fuck slipping between that man's teeth, but the point is clear enough. This farce of a relationship is exclusive. It makes sense. Keep everyone else’s prying eyes away, and the elf is free to pull Bren’s strings in whatever way he wishes.
The gears are already turning. That must be it; she’s more convinced now than ever that whatever he’s up to, he needs Bren on his side. Perhaps he saw the tides changing against him and jumped ship before he could get hurt. Ingratiated himself with the person he thought could provide the best protection. Perhaps he’s manipulating Bren as a means to keep himself safe. It’s what she would do.
“No, it isn’t,” Eadwulf points out when she voices the thought. “Things turned against us, too, and that’s not what you did.”
She frowns, straightening her coat. “I would have,” she says. “If it had been what the situation called for.”
But it does make her angry - more so than she would have expected. Bren has not been hers for years - has not been Bren for years - but that doesn’t make it sit right that someone else is… using him this way. He has always been the softest of them, even when they were children. He was too weak to handle their education, and now someone else is here to prey on that very same weakness. That soft heart. That idiot man who refuses to believe anything but the best of the people around him.
Wulf’s hands close around hers, and only then does she realize her nails have dug crescents into her palms. She stretches her fingers out, avoiding Wulf’s gaze as he digs his fingertips into the muscles there.
“You’re very cold and heartless, I know,” he tells her with the tone of one agreeing with a child who has declared herself a unicorn. “Thelyss, though - he’s… soft.”
Her derisive breath of laughter has him rolling his eyes.
“Yeah, okay. The woman who keeps pretty yellow flowers by the window and the man who comes over and tends for them every week--”
“Every week, Wulf?”
“--are both hardened manipulators. Hearts of stone, these two.” He presses a kiss to the back of one of her palms, then lets her hands drop to her sides.
“Ikithon had a garden,” she mutters. Hobbies aren’t everything. People like them don’t change. With a frustrated sigh, she turns back to the door. “We’re running low on fruit. I’m overdue for a trip to the market.”
Wulf sits back with a deep breath as she retrieves her satchel. He doesn’t say another word as she heads for the door, but he doesn’t have to. He knows what she’s really up to, but he also knows there will be no stopping her.
It’s not out of care for Bren that she finds herself lingering discreetly outside his house. If the elf is up to subterfuge, the Archmage of Civil Influence ought to know about it. She ought to root it out as a matter of national security. Regardless of Thelyss’s target, she would have done the same.
Besides, they really are running low on fruit.
In a stroke of luck, the front door swings open after only a quarter hour of waiting. And to her surprise, Bren is not alone when he steps outside. She ducks her head down as they pass, then falls into step behind them.
The two of them weave their way through the crowd a block or so ahead of her, arm in arm like a pair of lovesick fools, Thelyss wearing the familiar sun elf’s face. From this angle and this distance, only snatches of conversation float their way over the din to her; every word is completely mundane, as though the two of them really are the picture of domesticity. Which vegetables should they get for tonight’s stew? Should they pick something up for so-and-so’s son? How late ought Bren to be awake tonight?
It’s quite the act. She’ll give him that.
Then, the two of them stop to examine a cart of apples, and through the ebb and flow of the crowd, Bren’s eyes flick up to meet hers.
It’s uncanny how quickly they slip into their old language. Bren tilts his head in silent question, and Astrid nods with her chin towards Essek. He follows the motion easily, brows knit together apprehensively when he looks back to her. A question he still trusts her enough to ask: is she here on behalf of the Assembly? She shakes her head just once and watches his posture relax almost imperceptibly.
She watches it settle in on his face what her true purpose is. They always have read each other like a pair of picture books.
Bren holds her gaze for a moment longer. The silent request comes across: watch. She crosses her arms over his chest, a signal of compliance. For now.
Breaking eye contact at last, Bren turns to casually drape an arm around Essek’s shoulders. Astrid’s frown deepens at the way the elf twitches instinctively before relaxing into the touch. This isn’t natural for him. Bren should see that. Bren should know that. He isn’t even hiding it well.
But if Bren has noticed the slip, he gives no sign. Instead, he steers Essek about until she can see their faces. Something she refuses to name twists in her stomach at the way Bren smiles down at him.
The din of the market drowns out the sound when he speaks, but Astrid can read his lips. The thing in her stomach tightens. Schatz. Very original. Whatever it is she's supposed to get from this display, he had better deliver it quickly. Otherwise, she'll need to find an alley suitable for vomit.
Then, he kisses the elf on the nose. And there in the middle of the market, his disguise flickers.
Wide-eyed and red-faced, Thelyss snaps the spell back under control almost as soon as it wavers. Careful, Schatz, Astrid reads Bren’s lips - but his eyes read only fondness. Thelyss frowns up at him in reply, but the affection bubbling through is Bren’s perfect mirror. Something catches in Astrid’s chest.
When Thelyss turns away again, Bren catches her eye with a challenging smile. He’s already looked away again before she can glare back with the proper degree of heat. Instead, she trains her eyes on the elf. The little viper is flustered by affection, that’s plain enough. Proof of very little aside from his lack of comfort with such things. The look in his eyes, though… Astrid shakes herself, shoving the image to the back of her mind. It doesn’t fit with the rest of the puzzle, the way he looks at Bren.
Essek’s hand tucks behind his back, and while Caleb is looking the other direction, Astrid can follow the subtle muscle movements that betray spellcasting.
Foregoing subtlety for the moment, Astrid shoulders her way through the crowd closer to the pair. The motions for a counterspell ready at her fingertips. Starting a fight with this many eyes is a bad idea - she’ll need to incapacitate him quickly, make sure that no one sees either her or Bren, see to it that the three of them are teleported as quickly as possible to a secure location where she and Bren will have the upper hand. They’ve been through worse before - they can do it again. Through the bodies still between them, Astrid watches as the elf draws his hand from behind his back, angled toward Caleb, and…
And presents him with a vibrant, orange flower.
The counterspell fizzles out of her grasp. The thing in her stomach begins to claw its way up to her heart at the soft, fond surprise on Bren’s face as Essek tucks it gingerly behind his ear.
Essek Thelyss is a liar, a traitor, and a thief - but an actor, he is not. It shows every time Bren places a hand on his shoulder, every time he brushes their hands together at their sides, every time he leans into the elf’s space and the elf flinches just the slightest bit.
Why, then, is the look on his face when he gazes up at Bren the perfect picture of-- of--
He’s fucking Caleb, Wulf had told her - but that’s not it. That’s not all. Astrid tugs her hood up over her head, ducking into the crowd without another glance. The flow of foot traffic carries her out of the market and down a series of streets she doesn’t bother to register. For a while, the tides of the city buoy her where they will; then, at last, Astrid takes a deep breath, orients herself, and heads for home.
These are the facts. Essek Thelyss is a traitor to the Dynasty, a loose end for the Cerberus Assembly and a liability for herself and those to whom she is connected. She would, very likely, be better off were he to disappear under mysterious circumstances before another sunrise.
But these are the facts, as well. He loves Bren and Bren loves him. Wulf likes him, enough to secret his presence away from her for half a year. The bright yellow flowers in her window box survived to see the frost thaw.
Astrid tucks it all into the file in her head, then closes it and sorts it away somewhere out of sight. She doesn’t trust him - not by a longshot. People don’t change. Not her, and not Essek Thelyss.
Sure, says Wulf’s voice in her head, keep telling yourself that.
She shakes herself, paying no mind to the flowers as she pushes through the front door. It doesn’t matter. But if he wants to continue to throw himself directly into danger by coming here, well. She won’t be the one to make him stop.
She’ll have to find another route to the market.
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