“Happy Cardinalmas, Ma,” Malakai replied to her warmly. Her head still buried in his chest, Eimhear did not see the melancholy expression on her son’s face. She squeezed him tightly one last time and released him, wiping away her stray tears.
“Ev’ryone is ‘ere. Millicent, too.” Lady Fergan gave a sideways glance to her son as they walked to the drawing room. Outwardly, he showed no response to the information. Inwardly, his stomach lurched. His Ma always knew what buttons to push.
“I’m sure my brother Graeme will be pleased,” Malakai replied coolly. Raucous voices filtered out of the drawing room, muffled by the thick wood paneling. Just as his mother prepared to open the double doors, a cheer erupted. She turned to her son, eyebrows arched, but said nothing as she opened the doors.
The room was near capacity with party guests. Half of them wore the dress uniform of the Blood Berets, with their signature beret nestled under their right shoulder epaulet. The other half were from the Highlander Clan Warriors, another Imperial Special Force. Their look was more functional, less decorative. All of them were surrounding a couple locked in a long, passionate kiss underneath a 1,000 Cardinal’s Crown attached to the threshold that led to the manor’s rear ball room. It was a common tradition during Cardinalmas to kiss your beloved under one for good luck and prosperity for the coming year.
The couple was his brother and Millicent Rowley, a member of another attached family to the clan. His brother wore the trappings of a highly decorated hero of the Highlanders, while Millicent wore the dress uniform of a Blood Beret sergeant. As the partygoers observed the new arrivals, the cheering died down almost immediately; some of the Berets crossed themselves upon sight of Malakai.
Millicent and Graeme, noticing the change in the atmosphere, broke their kiss and looked in the direction of the entrance.
Malakai discovered that their expressions were unchanged from the last time he caught them together, so many years ago.
“Graeme? Are ye down 'ere?” Ailín called down the hallway leading to his and his brother’s rooms. Revisor Malcom is about t'leave.” No answer.
He was about to look elsewhere when he heard muffled noises coming from his brother’s bedroom. At first, he wasn’t sure if he did indeed hear anything. Then, after a moment, he heard an indistinct conversation resume. Slowly, he walked to his brother’s closed door.
More muffled voices, speaking quickly.
Ailín tried the door to his brother’s room, it was unlocked. He opened it, saying, “Graeme, why didn’t ye - ?”
The sentence died in his throat. His brother’s four poster bed was opposite the door. Graeme was sitting on the bed, stark naked, trying to pull up his pants. He looked at his intruding brother and blanched.
Millicent was also there, under the warm covers of his brother’s bed. Her face blushed with embarrassment; she bit her lower lip apprehensively.
“Did ye ever hear o' knockin'?” Graeme grumbled. His admonishment of his brother soon faded when he saw the incensed expression on Ailín’s face.
“How dare ye?” Ailín hissed through clenched teeth. His eyes went from Graeme to Millicent, then back to Graeme. The color faded from his brother’s cheeks.
“Wait, ye n' Millie? Ailín, Aye swear aye didn’ know!” Graeme sprang from his bed and approached his brother in a reconciliatory manner.
Ailín’s fist swung out and connected squarely with his brother’s left cheek, sending him sprawling across the room. Millicent squealed at the sudden violence and rushed to Graeme’s side, nakedness be damned.
“Save it,” Ailín said to his prone sibling. After a long, disdainful look at the couple, he turned on his heel and walked out of Graeme’s room, slamming the door behind him.
Millicent and Graeme broke their embrace with a mien of guilt. As Millicent straightened her uniform, Graeme walked towards his brother and bowed respectfully. As he stood up, Malakai noted the hard look on his brother’s face.
“Inquisitor Majoris,” Graeme greeted his brother.
“Major Fergan,” Malakai formally replied in kind. He glanced about the room, acknowledging that everyone kept quiet, or if they did speak, spoke in hushed whispers. He raised his hands in an entreating gesture.
“Don't dampen the festivities on my account, everyone. Besides, it has been many a year since this Inquisitor tasted a round of the clan's finest stout!” Malakai intoned as he grabbed a full glass off a passing tray and held it as a toast. “To the Cardinal.” The guests raised their glasses high.
“To the CARDINAL!” the Highlanders bellowed, Graeme included. They easily drowned out the Berets' cheer. Malakai brought the glass to his lips and downed it in one motion, wincing at the taste. The reason for his interval from the clan's porter was not because of his vow, but because the brew tasted hideous to him. A Fergan all his life, and couldn't stomach their beer. To him, bull’s urine tasted better, knowing that unpleasant fact to a dare made by Graeme himself when they were kids.
Graeme watched his brother’s expression with guarded amusement. “Now tha’ ye have taken off th’ robe, aye need ye t’put it back on fer a wee bit,” he said as he watched Malakai wipe his mouth with his hand. “Aye need t’ask a favor.”
Malakai’s eyes glanced sideways to his mother. She held her feelings plainly on her face. Worry covered it. He set his glass down on a nearby table. “Very well, what is it?” he replied.
“Let’s talk about this in private,” Graeme replied.
“As you wish,” Malakai said, motioning for the exit to an adjacent drawing room.