Adeja received his new orders with a professional silence belying his relief. A promotion from guarding the central hall of the palace to the quarters of the royal heir was nothing to scoff at. Zhanil was a friend of the army and often exchanged small talk with the soldiers posted to the royal household.
"The prince asked specifically for you," said Meden. "It's a great honor, if you want to call it that." The smile his commanding officer gave him was mystifying, one part conspiratorial and one part mocking. "As a post, it has its own risks and rewards. You might find it a welcome change--or not. Dinhal will take you."
In his three years on duty in the Rhodeen capital, Adeja had never been anywhere near the royal apartments, situated on the third level of the palace. Dinhal, who was Meden's personal message boy, was a dour guide, saying nothing and handing him over to the prince's chief eunuch without ceremony.
Adeja rarely trusted eunuchs. They all seemed to possess the same secretive, shifty eyes, a trait that came perhaps from being unmanned and having only food and gossip to console them. This particular eunuch was a dark-skinned Juvan with a prominent double chin and narrow eyes that were nearly lost in the fleshy folds of his face. Adeja disliked him at once. Still, he remembered his place and handed over his orders.
Unfolding the missive, the eunuch gave it no more than a cursory glance. "My name is Nakhet," he said, "and when you do not take orders from our master you will take them from me. Now then, the prince is waiting within and we cannot keep him."
From the foyer, Adeja followed the eunuch through a series of rooms, each more elaborate and richly furnished than the last. Several sleek cats lounged on cushions throughout the apartment, and servants were busy at their tasks. A few glanced up when he passed, returning to work only when Nakhet chastised them.
At last, they came to a terraced hanging garden with a view of the city and mountains beyond. Nakhet waved Adeja toward a reflecting pool tiled with blue mosaics. "Wait here while I inform Prince Sephil of your arrival."
Adeja, casually inspecting his surroundings, froze at the name. "I'm sorry, I didn't quite hear you. Surely there must be some mistake. I've been assigned to guard Crown Prince Zhanil."
Nakhet's laughter did not reassure him. Waving a plump hand thick with rings, the eunuch indicated the missive in his other. "I have your orders right here, soldier. You have been assigned to the household of the king's second son. Now, if there are no more questions, we cannot keep him waiting."
Once the eunuch was gone, Adeja knotted his hands into fists. Everyone knew the younger prince was a simpering fool who was not even permitted at court. No wonder Meden mocked him. This was not a promotion at all.
Nakhet returned with two other eunuchs and a young man dressed in clinging, pale green silk. Adeja made the requisite bow, formally presented himself for duty, and waited. If he remembered correctly, Sephil Brasides was nineteen years old with no military training whatsoever. His appearance certainly confirmed the tales: beardless and willowy, with pale skin and a mass of light brown hair that fell nearly to his waist. Had it not been for the apple bobbing at his throat, Adeja might have taken him for a girl.
"Is this the new sentry?" asked a low voice.
"Yes, my lord," replied Nakhet. "He comes highly recommended."
The prince now stood directly in front of him, in a cloud of costly fragrance that made his nose twitch. "What is your name, soldier?"
"Adeja ked Shamuz, my lord."
"Adeja," Sephil purred, drawing out the syllables as if tasting them. Adeja lowered his eyes to the pebbled mosaic that encircled the pool. He could feel the prince's gaze crawling over him, appraising him like a prospective buyer at a horse auction.
Sephil stepped back. "Yes, he will serve. That will be all for now. Nakhet, see to it this guard is properly stationed and that he knows the duties of the household."