The secret passage was as narrow as it had been when it was originally hewn into the palace’s inner walls – Buck wasn’t actually sure of when that was – but it had been decorated over a period of decades with paint, candle-holders and even a nice tile-pattern along the bottom half in some stretches. Buck had tried to extend the tile work in a summer when he’d suddenly dived into an interest in interior design, but he’d turned out to be nowhere near as good with his hands as he was with his words. Still, he often wondered who had had time to decorate this mini-corridor, and how often they’d been using it that they felt a desire to do so.
He poked his head out the door when they reached their destination, making sure nobody was in the room. It was one thing to reveal the palace’s secrets when you were trying to build bridges with a diplomatic contact, quite another to make it clear to anyone who happened to be turning down the bedsheets.
“And here we have a guest bedroom,” Buck said as they exited the passageway. He gestured around as if he were a tour guide. “This is where Queen Merhen stayed, in fact.” He opted not to mention the move he and Pires had pulled on Erson in this room, using that secret passageway, to get him to agree to the banquet.
“Oh, I see,” Alkset said, following him to the door to the corridor. “It’s smaller than I might have expected for that.”
“Luxurious though,” Buck said, leading her out and heading down towards the performance hall. “That mattress? Wow.” Buck had passed out there more than once after a particularly raucous banquet night.
They continued chatting about the palace as they walked along the corridor, but hushed as Erson approached and Myal approached. Buck hadn’t spoken to Myal properly since that day at his treehouse, even if it did feel like there was still so much to say. He let his eyes drop to the ground as they passed, but Erson, who clearly was learning nothing about diplomacy, said a quick hello to them both as they walked past. Buck glanced over his shoulder and saw Myal whipping her head around to glare at Erson. Luckily the performance hall was just a few more metres down the corridor.
When they got inside, Buck immediately closed the door – possibly slightly too fast, as Alkset tilted her head to the side and frowned at him. He gulped. “Long story… Shall we get to the histories?”
“Uh, sure,” Alkset said, her frown slowly easing. “Should I have paper, by the way?”
“Oh no, no,” Buck said, waving his hands in front of himself. “These songs will stay stuck in your head if you hear them enough, trust me.”
He opened his mouth to sing of the first inhabitants of the Royal Valley, but just at that moment he heard a shout from the corridor.
“You can’t!” Myal screamed. Buck’s neck snapped around to face the door.
There were some indecipherable noises that Buck reckoned must have been Erson panicking about something, then Erson’s slightly raised voice said, “I have, okay? I have forgiven him. Neither you nor I can change that. It’s just how I feel.”
“And how did you feel about Raddig?” Myal replied.
“Oh that’s very nice, Myal,” Erson snapped. “I thought you were trying to look out for me, not throw my mistakes in my face.”
“Look out for you? He hurt me too, you know! Just because you trust too easily-”
“Could you stop pulling on my insecurities just for five seconds? I know you’re upset about what happened-”
“I am upset because he was my friend!” Myal howled. “He helped me build a court and he was going to help me build a bigger one. He valued me and actually listened to me.”
“I value you, Myal,” Erson said, slightly quieter, but the argument had built to such a pitch that even slightly quieter was still quite loud.
“Yes, but as you’ve just acknowledged, you don’t listen,” Myal said. “He saw me, he cared, he listened, he valued, whatever. But no, it was all about you, once again. Everything I did was for you, even when he first came. But building the court was going to be about me. And now you’ve forgiven him? And I just have to go along with it?”
“No, no you don’t,” Erson said. “I… I’m sorry. A lot of this is coming at me for the first time. Let’s go somewhere… quieter.”
Buck jerked his head back to face Alkset, who seemed to have been watching him the entire time, or at least for the last few moments. Oops, eavesdropping certainly wasn’t very honest, was it?
“Sorry,” he said. “I – uh – I’m worried about them.”
“Do you know what that was about?” Alkset asked, sitting down on one of the benches. Buck had considered going up on the stage, but that seemed a bit far away for teaching purposes if Alkset had any questions. So he for the moment stood on the bench in front of her, and would stand on that when he was ready.
“Sort of,” Buck said, which was as close as he could get to the truth. Technically he didn’t know everything that was going on in Myal’s mind, but he had a damn good idea now. He had tried to apologise for lying to her, but it clearly meant so much, he didn’t blame her for still being upset. Especially since he hadn’t even considered doing as she asked of him. Maybe he should have just done it, maybe he really should have just walked away from Pires if he wanted to be better than he’d been before.
“Well, let’s get on with it anyways, shall we?” Alkset asked. She leaned forward on the bench, ready to listen intently.
Buck nodded and stood up, shoving the thoughts away. He loved an invested audience, and something he noticed about Alkset was that her eyes were wide and her mouth was open but smiling. She was clearly quite eager to learn about this kingdom. As Buck started to sing, he found that smile infectious, and actually started to enjoy the relaying of the facts. While everyone knew at least part of these songs, few people could recite them in perfect time in their entirety. And technically there was a diplomatic deal riding on them, at least to some extent, so he used that to kick himself into proper excitement, and even started to improvise on the tune a bit so he could emphasise particular historical figures and moments. How could he have given this up?
When he reached a song about the beginning of Erson’s line, he considered stopping to clarify that that’s what was happening, but decided to let the reveal happen in its own time. It was quite the story, with perhaps an embarrassing amount of military conquest bringing them into residence in the Valley. Then he was tumbling through the generations until Erson’s parents and Pires’s father made an appearance, hunkered down in their tactical rooms. It really wasn’t all that far from what Buck and Pires did these days, there were just more swords involved.
Alkset didn’t raise an eyebrow at all the swords, which Buck appreciated. His stomach eased, and he realised he’d been expecting some very stern, disapproving looks. But Alkset seemed to be engrossed, just taking it all in. Buck’s fingers were held politely behind his back, so he was able to cross his fingers that that wouldn’t change if Erson’s letter was successful.