Eloquence’s resolve wavered. Rumbles of rowdy good humor drifted across the ice-bitten garden, which meant Dad was busy. Too busy for a son’s petty grievances and injured pride. But he had to try, for Ever’s sake if not his own. And soon. Time was as short as the fading day. The winter solstice had slipped past, and the New Year was fast approaching. “Tonight, then,” he promised himself. “Provided they don’t crack a second cask of star wine.”
He tested the air for telltale scents. Today’s guests were a blend he knew well enough—wolf, cat, fox, and dragon. A meeting of the Five.
Over the past few decades, Eloquence had grown accustomed to the comings and goings of his father’s assorted friends. Few Amaranthine mingled outside their clans except to establish an enclave or cooperative, but Harmonious Starmark wasn’t one to enforce boundary lines. Dad had never liked barriers.
Giving up, Eloquence turned toward the pavilion he shared with his younger brothers and all but ran into an elder one. Sly dog.
“What’s with the glare, runt?” Prospect’s perpetual grin widened. “You always used to like our little games.”
“When I was a pup.” Eloquence ducked out from under his brother’s heavy arm. Quen was no longer the youngest Starmark, but that didn’t stop his three older brothers from reminding him of his place within the pack. This amounted to a whole lot of tussling and teasing, with an ego-wrecking range of embarrassing stories thrown in for good measure.
“Not my fault you’re too lazy to mark corners.” Prospect mussed his hair, irreparably loosening Eloquence’s heavy, auburn braid. “What would Uncle Laud say?”
“That a downwind approach is as rude inside the den as out.”
“Granted.” Prospect’s copper eyes sparkled. “But seriously, Quen. You should make some effort. I’m not the only one on the prowl.”
“Journalists wouldn’t dare. Not after the last time.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you. But speaking of pups, I’ll loan you mine.”
All this while, Prospect had been carelessly cradling a dozing newborn, his third child. Swaddled in a blanket lavishly embroidered with copper ribbon rosettes, she fit neatly in the crook of his arm.
“If your bondmate put you on baby duty, who am I to interfere?” But Eloquence was already reaching for the newest member of the Starmark clan. It wasn’t little Clarion’s fault that her dad couldn’t tune his instrument with a little one hobbling his hands. “Dad asked for you?”
“Yes, though his message implied popular demand.” Prospect stooped to stroke his daughter’s cheek. “Star wine tastes better with an accompaniment.”
“I don’t mind.” This was both trust and a treat. “Lyric and Lavish are always so quick to carry her off, Ever and I barely get a turn. Rise even grumbles.”
“Further proof she’s my girl. We’re both in high demand.” Prospect’s gloating smile faded, and his tone took a turn toward the serious. “I heard you’re to be recognized soon. That’s good. You’ve waited long enough.”
Eloquence could feel embarrassment burn into the tips of his ears. There was a reason his brothers had nicknamed him runt.
On the day he was born, his mother had died. No one would give him any details, but according to the pack’s songs and stories, Aurora Starmark had clung to life long enough to protect his passage into the world. She could no longer run with them, but her strength had not gone from the pack. Her influence lingered. Many of Quen’s sisters had her daintier chin and fine brows. And there were subtler legacies—quick wits, quiet manners, and a fondness for stringed instruments.
For whatever reason, Eloquence had always been small for his age. Standing tall, he barely reached his brothers’ shoulders, but his hands and feet were large enough to suggest that he hadn’t yet reached his full growth. And so Dad kept putting off his attainment, waiting for him to grow into his paws.
“I’ve been old enough for a long time now,” Eloquence said stiffly. He was nearly twice the age Valor had been when the pack recognized his next-older brother as an adult.
“Everyone knows it.” For once, Prospect didn’t tease. “You know, Anna’s the one who put her foot down.”
Eloquence had no doubt that had been a lively conversation. And his step-mother’s bark was nothing compared to her bite. “I’ll be sure to thank her.”
With a final brush of knuckles across his daughter’s fuzz of auburn hair, Prospect said, “I need to go.”
“You know where to find us.”
His brother stalled long enough to press a kiss to Clarion’s forehead. A good sign that his heart was in the right place. But then he grinned and kissed Eloquence’s forehead as if he were a half-weaned nuzzler again.
Quen felt fully justified in delivering a parting kick to Prospect’s shin.
Fussing with Clarion’s blanket, he meandered slowly toward his rooms, a sway to his steps.
Across the way, his brother was already tuning his instrument. Low notes quickly ascended in a glissade that led seamlessly into a sprightly tune more suited to dancing than drinking. Quen flowed through the steps of one of the walking dances that would be part of this little one’s whelping feast.
Clarion opened her eyes, and he chuckled. “Do you hear your sire? He plays for you.”
She squeaked and squirmed. Only then did Eloquence notice the source of her dismay, a figure standing quietly at the end of the porch. Watching him. And probably waiting on him.
With a soothing rumble, Eloquence strolled on. “Good nose, little one. You found a stranger, but he’s a friend to this pack. Trust your Uncle Quen.”
Her answering gurgle put a smile on his face. And a pang in the secret places of his heart. Prospect was so lucky.
At the moment, all Eloquence could claim was a vague sense of being cornered. But he covered his surprise, tossing off a casual gesture of welcome and peace. “Good day, Spokesperson Twineshaft.”