Ean took a deep breath. He felt drained. And pained. But grateful it was over.
Kaim had been the last person he had to talk to about Danya. The rest of the family could run him down at will as they felt like it.
Which they would. But later.
He found a windowed reading alcove along the forest-side wall and sat down on the cushions. Outside, the snow was still falling, making the blankets of white clinging to the ascending pines, firs and dairaks thicker by the moment. Ean rested his back against the padded wall and some pillows and tried not to go to sleep.
Ahttah, I’m already exhausted. Please pick me up.
Projects. He had projects to check on.
But first a nap.
He pushed the pillows back and sat up straighter, bowed his head and tried not to weep. His father was borderline. Kaim was barely keeping a handle on a rage Ean hadn’t even known he had. From the looks and hints he had already been getting from the rest of the family they were all wondering if the crown prince had finally gone off the rails.
Dinner was going to be a disaster. What was he going to tell them?
Tell them… that there was another set of rails.
Why didn’t they already know?
His great-great-great-grandfather Johsheh did. Bethania’s husband was as strange, and as steady, as she was. He had just smiled when Ean ran into him during his hunt for Trin, and told him to send Danya fishing when she had some time.
There were others, too. Great-uncle Paytir, cousin Shin, great-great-aunt Shahlah. The twins probably thought it was hilarious, but they also wouldn’t care and might be persuaded to run interference.
Pray. Stop worrying and pray.
“Ahttah, thank you for your son. Thank you that my father is letting Danya stay for now. Thank you…”
He spent a good ten kellas in the alcove with his head bowed, then left it refreshed, grabbed lunch, and headed off to check on all the projects he’d left behind four days before.
Some of the small ones were already done. Marin had the Starlan scavenger back in place on blast furnace two. The new tungsten sintering forge was installed and ready to begin production. The secondary gas kiln in the ceramics lab was back up and running.
Other projects were still in progress, but didn’t seem to have suffered much for his absence. The engineers in charge would have received all his corrections in the project book anyway, so as long as nothing had suddenly gone wrong, it wasn’t surprising that they were advancing. As nothing stood out when he asked the manager who’d taken over in his absence, he decided to take them in order, popping in for a brief in-person update before moving on.
Everything looked good, just like his second had said, until he walked into the lab dedicated to project Thunderbolt. Several engineers and mechanics in hard kren-plate armor tinkered with an array of ballista bolts, machining and attaching explosive heads, assembling detonators and carefully installing complicated explosives, but all of them seemed distracted.
Distracted in an explosives lab was not good.
Ean looked for Tala, the woman in charge of the lab, and found her sitting at her workbench, writing in a notebook and ignoring everything else. Why was she ignoring her lab?
Ean ignored the urge to leave the lab. He also ignored the looks–some more like glares–he received from the other workers as he crossed through the room to get to his distant cousin.
“Tala…” he said.
She jumped and slapped the notebook closed.
“Yes?” She spun around to look up at him, keeping one hand firmly on the notebook.
He almost asked her why she wasn’t looking after her laboratory. Slacking when explosives were involved was not at all acceptable. Even if the lab was well separate from the rest of the workshops, it still represented a terrible risk to the workers in it.
But something held him back.
Maybe it was the dark circles under her eyes. Or the red veins so obvious around her pretty blue irises. Or the rawness of her small nose.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Me? Oh. I’m fine. I’m great. Why do you ask?”
“I thought you might be…”
“What? You thought I might be what?”
Ean stared at her, not sure what to say or do. Should he tell her he would have been interested? No. He really couldn’t. Until things were all figured out with Danya, there was nothing he could do about courting Tala or anyone else. Telling her he would have been interested would just be… painful?
Ahttah, I’m over sixty years old and I have no clue what to say to a woman I’ve known for most of my life.
What was he supposed to say?
Tala began to fidget, flicking her ears and twisting on her stool.
“Ean, I should really get back to my work…”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t notice you were interested.”
“I know,” she replied.
“It’s because you’re an idiot.”
Tala gave him a smile that cracked halfway across her face and struggled to make it to her eyes.
“Shut up. Please. Just… do what you were thinking about and yell at me for letting my lab fall apart.”
“I didn’t want to…”
“But it’s true. I’m letting everything slide in here over something I should have done something about a lot sooner. I’m sorry.”
Ean felt completely powerless. Silence behind him told him the rest of the workshop had stopped moving and was listening to their conversation.
“Would you like to talk about this after dinner, Tala? We could get some tea from the kitchen and…”
Tala looked at his hands and he realized he was wringing them. He put them in his pockets instead and straightened up, then met her eyes. She held his gaze for a moment, searching, then looked away.
“No. Not right now. Please. I’ll get things together in here. I promise.”
Ean nodded, gave her a short bow of apology, and left the lab. He tried to ignore the whispers and open glares on the way out.
When he reached the stone hallway he shut the door carefully and then let out a big breath.
That had been terrible.
When he got back to the main workshops a lilta man in a train mechanic’s uniform came running up to him and bowed. In his hands was a large newsprint package, carefully sealed with a few strips of paper-tape.
“It’s just Ean up here.”
“Ean, sir. We found this in the port sleeping cabin in the family car. One of the maids said the Lady Firrisskahv slept in there.”
“It’s hers. I’ll take it to her. Thank you.”
The man nodded and left as soon as Ean took the package.
Danya. Such a mystery.
Kaim, too. And now Tala.
Machines were definitely easier to understand.
Please help me, Ahttah. I don’t have a clue.