Brennan raced down the corridor, the soles of his dress shoes losing traction on the slick tiled floor. The stitch in his side served as a reminder that he needed to spend less time behind his new desk and more time in the gym. As King Argus's second son and the newly minted Deputy Director of the Crevalian Information Network, it was unlikely he would see fieldwork again, but it paid to be prepared.
Sweat dripped into his eyes. He rounded a corner, dodged a pair of guards. His heart hammered in his chest. It was sheer luck that he'd been so close to the shopping plaza when the explosion had gone off. He'd fought off his security team and rushed toward the chaos.
There had been a demonstration planned outside the plaza. The Republic of Liberation, a grassroots anti-monarchy movement, had threatened violence if their concerns weren't addressed. Brennan had sent a young operative, a rookie, in to join the RoL. Though the rookie had wanted to be assigned to Peyen, Creval's northern neighbor and on-and-off ally, Brennan had sent him to the RoL.
He'd sent his cousin to the bomb.
Sending Devin to Peyen – hell, sending him to the dangerous TriBorder between Peyen, Creval and Gretham – would have been a safer bet. Brennan's first real command decision had killed his favorite cousin. No wonder his father had been so reluctant to let him lead the CIN.
How was he going to break the news to Aunt Mina? How could he shatter his beloved aunt's heart? How could he look her in the eye and tell her that he'd killed Devin? Sweet, irreverent, loyal Devin. Oh gods, it was a mess.
Brennan rounded another corner. The air was thick with smoke. The combined odors of roasted flesh, singed hair, and burning wood sent a fresh wave of nausea rolling across Brennan. Injured, moaning people lined the corridor. Medics darted like flies from person to person, bandaging wounds and calling out orders. Brennan searched sooty faces for his cousin's familiar features.
Down a second, narrower corridor closer to the heart of the blast, Brennan spotted a flash of pink and the scuffed toes of military-style boots sticking out from a shallow alcove. As he neared, it became clear that the pink was a scarf tied like a tourniquet around a man's calf. Small, blood-flecked hands were rolling up the man's other pant leg. Beneath the din around him, he heard a calm, light feminine voice.
She was speaking Crevalian, but the accent was flat. Bland. Though her grammar was correct, it was too formal. Stilted. She spoke as one who'd recently learned the language and not one who'd been immersed in it.
He halted in front of the alcove. Peered down into his cousin's pain-tightened, ashen face. Relief hit him like a punch to the solar plexus. He braced his hand on the wall to keep from dropping to his knees.
"Do you know this man?" asked that too-proper feminine voice.
Brennan tore his gaze off Devin's face to study the woman – girl, just out of her teens – huddled next to Devin. She was as grubby as Dev. Her cap of mussed brown curls was dusted with ash. She was petite. Her jeans and sweater were simple but well-made. No jewelry. No tattoos or scars or other identifying marks. She would have been forgettable if not for the silvery blue eyes framed by dark, long lashes. Her eyes reminded him of his favorite lake just before dawn. When the air was quiet and he could capture a moment of peace. She radiated that same sense of peace.
"He is my cousin," Brennan answered. He crouched near Devin's feet. "How badly is he injured?"
"A piece of rebar sliced his calf. His pants are burned to his legs. There is a burn on his shoulder. It is the injury to his leg that worries me most. I cannot stop the bleeding." She tightened the tourniquet. Devin moaned, started to thrash. The girl clucked her tongue and reached up to cup Devin's pale cheek.
"Shh. Don't move. Your cousin's here. Older cousin. You don't want him to think you're a wimp, now, do you? You're the one who pulled those children out of that stairwell. You're the hero. Don't start playing the damsel now," she cooed.
Brennan wondered if she realized that she'd slipped into Peyenese. It explained her awkwardness with Crevalian. And why she hadn't recognized him. Was she a tourist? A recent immigrant?
"You will care for him now?" she asked, the Crevalian words heavy on her tongue. She studied Brennan with those bright eyes. "You will care for your cousin?"
"Yes, I will care for him."
She nodded, rose. Rather than moving out of the alcove, she scowled down at him. It was a rare position for Brennan. Few people stood while he was seated. He didn't want to quibble about etiquette. She didn't know that the was a prince, and he didn't want her refreshingly forthright attitude towards him to change.
"You are Brennan?" she asked, voice dropping to a whisper. "The new Deputy Director of the CIN?"
His head shot up. His spine stiffened. He was used to being addressed by his royal title. Not by his job title. His promotion was only hours old. How had this mouse of a girl found out? This mouse of a Peyenese girl?
"You are." A slight smile softened her smug response. "You photograph rather well, Deputy Director."
"Who are you?" he demanded. Were it not for his cousin's blood on his hands, he would rise and take the girl into custody. Devin had to be his priority. Devin. Not the job.
"You should take better care with your people, Deputy Director," the mouse admonished as she stepped out of the alcove. "Do not send this one back to the RoL. His disguise was good, but his bearing was a giveaway. Royal cousins must lose their polish before they are sent into the field."
"Who are you?" Brennan demanded again. It was a tone few resisted.
She dropped into a perfect curtsy. "Today, I am a friend. Tomorrow, my dear Deputy Director, may be a different story."
Brennan stared down the corridor long after she slipped out of sight. When the medics and Brennan's security team swarmed the alcove, he reluctantly released Devin's calf and stood back. He answered questions and gave instructions, but his mind was still on the Peyenese mouse. And a brilliant pair of blue eyes.