The Blight was not a friendly part of the castle city, not even to someone in a respectable uniform of one of the noble houses. The alleys stank of piss and sex, the natural musk of those who cared only enough to live in order to survive.
Emery did his best to move out of there as quickly as his dignity could manage.
“There you are.” Ridge let Emery back in through the servants’ entrance of the Harding estate. “You’re in one piece, to boot. How did it go?”
Emery shook his head. “Not too well. Thieves apparently are only interested in their own pockets. They want to be certain they get rewarded no matter what they do.”
“Well, it was a long-shot,” Ridge said, helping Emery shuck off the soldier’s uniform and change into his fitted tunic and breeches. “After all, what could a common foot soldier offer to the scourges of the Blight? They have no idea who you are, right?”
“I used the name Dax Cabot whenever I had been asked,” Emery said. Ridge gave him a quick glance over to ensure Emery hadn’t been looking as if he crawled through the dirtiest part of the city, then led him out of the servants’ area.
“Wasn’t that the name of your old tutor?” Ridge asked.
Emery shushed him, but nodded. Talk of Emery’s trip to the Blight ceased between the two friends as they made their way through the manor. Gods knew Emery didn’t want any gossipy maids overhearing that their prince had tried to make deals with thieves.
Ridge changed the topic to a teasing, “My parents are seating you next to Leandra again at dinner tonight.”
Emery gave Ridge a sidelong glance. “You know nothing is going to come of this.”
“Of course,” Ridge said. “You would never be able to handle my sister. It’s why it’s such fun to tease you about my parents trying to set you up. You can’t blame them for wanting the match, though. I heard they had to petition hard to have the crown prince himself go through his squire years at their estate.”
Emery gave his head a soft shake, finding no words. He had no doubt that once he did return to court there would be women lined up as potential brides, both from his parents and from the other noble houses alike.
“There are times when I wish Leandra and I cared enough about each other to go through that,” Emery admitted quietly. “She would never want to be queen, though, and I wouldn’t want to force her to play the part.”
“As her brother, I suppose I’m thankful you care enough about her to think of her feelings like that,” Ridge said. “That and, let’s be real, she’s not delicate enough to be a queen.”
“I’ve no idea where you’ve come up with that thought,” Emery said. “Queens are anything but delicate.”
“Well, yes, I’m sure,” Ridge said, waving off Emery’s words, “but they need to play that part, don’t they? Your mother is the gentle hand compared to your father’s iron fist. Leandra would end up insulting most of the court. Under her, a rebellion would have happened long ago—”
Emery gave Ridge a hard jab in the ribs with an elbow. Ridge glared at Emery but said nothing, grudgingly accepting the admonishment.
“Come on,” Emery said, quickening their pace through the estate’s hallways. “We’ll be late for sparring practice.”