Seth ambled along the corridor to the dining hall, keeping a sharp eye out for people he didn’t want to meet. His mother hadn’t been working her usual shifts in the Tower kitchen since Natalie was taken away, but he didn’t know when that would change. It was easiest to go get food during the shifts he knew she preferred to spend at home. Everybody in the dining hall knew him, of course; they’d watched him grow up. But they weren’t pests. His mom was such a strong-willed woman that nobody really knew what to do when her own son was avoiding her, but it was, they seemed to think, best to stay out of the line of fire.
Even alone, Seth smiled at the thought, or at least his face stretched along familiar lines. It was best. It was all for the best.
“There you are,” a voice growled. He jerked around wildly, then relaxed. It was only the Tanist, advancing on him with murder in her eyes. He’d sort of been avoiding her, too— not with the pathological precision he avoided his mother and siblings, but just skipping the mentoring meetings she kept trying to arrange.
“Hey, Tanist, where have you been? You never call, you never write. But oops, look at the time. I was just going to go get some dinner. I’m a growing boy, you know.”
Her hand closed on his arm. “Hell with that.” She dragged him into a side corridor. Bemused, Seth let her. A moment later they were at a small lounge looking out onto the conservatory. “What is with you and your attitude, boy? Don’t you ever learn?”
A little irritated, Seth said, “Hey, I haven’t mouthed off to you in weeks, lady. What’s your problem?”
She frowned at him. “You’ve been horrible to your family.”
Seth flopped into one of the overstuffed chairs and hooked a leg over the arm. “I’ve been perfectly polite to my father, so I don’t know what you’re worried about.”
“You treat your father just as you always do. By the way, I do know it wasn’t him that made you ‘apologize’ to me, so don’t pretend it was. But I’m talking about your mother.”
Frowning, Seth asked, “Why do you care about how I treat my mother? I thought you hated my mother.”
The Tanist looked astonished. “I don’t hate your mother at all.”
Seth yawned to cover his unease. “You fooled me. You’re a true bitch about her to my father, every time she comes up.”
A tiny smile flickered across the Tanist’s face. “I am often a bitch to your father. It’s the least I can do for him. But Valeria… it’s not her fault.”
The Tanist hesitated, then shook her head. “You take after your father too much. Look, Natalie’s absence hurts all of us, kid. I had such high hopes for her. She was worth every damn.”
“Ouch,” he said mildly.
“You deserve it, just like your father does.” She sighed. “But look, I can’t threaten you anymore because Val’s been hurt enough. Just… make up with her. She deserves a better elder son, but what she’s got is you, and I will damn well find a way to make up for your father’s lapses if you don’t get your act together. And that’s a promise, not a threat,” she added.
Seth stared at the Tanist until suddenly two brain cells banged together and a new idea was born. “What the hell? And here I thought you had a thing for my dad.” He considered, or added thoughtfully, “Or maybe that Prowler, Linc. A guy, anyhow.”
She gave him a cool look. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. And Linc? God, no. Whatever gave you that idea?”
“You were so upset when he was injured,” Seth pointed out. “You went jumping down everybody’s throats.” He considered. “You never really stopped, either.”
She gave him a funny look, then said, “And thus I have a ‘thing’ for him? I wonder if you’re listening to yourself. Have you noticed how upset you are about Natalie?”
Blandly, he said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
The Tanist curled her mouth like she’d tasted something unpleasant. Then the expression melted away and she sighed. “Once your mother and I were very close. I wanted to be closer than she did. But I don’t blame her.”
“You blame my dad instead? Because that makes sense. No, wait, it doesn’t.”
She shrugged. “I don’t deny that he loves her. But she doesn’t love him any more than she loved me. He won through virtue of being male, and I punish him for not being the man she could truly love.” She smirked at him. “Does the truth hurt, kid?”
“Uh. It’s certainly uncomfortable.”
“Well, you’ve moved out. You’re all grown up. You’ve earned your grown-up truths.” Her expression sobered. “But make up with your mother. She does love you, the moron.”
Seth narrowed his eyes. “Only because she gave birth to me. She’s always loved Natalie and the kids more.”
“Boohoo. You’ve always loved Natalie and your mom more than your father, haven’t you?”
“Hey, it’s not like he’s Ajax’s dad. He’s just… not my role model.” He eyed the Tanist. “Though I may have to reconsider. Hanging around you all these years, knowing how much you dislike him. That’s some premium provocation right there.”
Stiffly, the Tanist said, “I’ve always understood it to be an attempt to smooth things over. Besides, it’s not like we can avoid each other living in the Tower.”
“It’s not so hard. But you just keep telling yourself that.” Then, under his breath, he added, “Go, Dad!”
To his disappointment, the Tanist only rolled her eyes and blew out her breath. “You know, you’re too much like your father, but you’ve got your mother in you, too. More than I bet you realize. You can project whatever you want onto Jake, but he was the good kid. Valeria was the one who got into trouble. She made mistakes. And God, I can’t believe I just defended Jake.”
“I can’t, either. What kind of trouble did she get into?”
The Tanist smiled. “Ask her.” Then she blew him a kiss, and strolled away.
Seth stared after her. Then his face tightened and he muttered, “As if,” before returning to the hunt for dinner.