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The Queen of White Shores

Momsdarksecret

Chapter 1: Reunion The adult madrin walked calmly down the middle of the north coast road, passing between the estates of the wealthiest noble families heedlessly. It stopped when it reached the edge of the city proper and sat down on its haunches, clearly intending to wait for something. Panicked residents immediately sent word to the royal palace. -o-o-o-oieran still thought ha!ing an office, e!en a small one, was a bad idea. It "ust in!ited him to keep things that he probably didn#t need. $e put his hands on his hips and stared at his rather cluttered desk, determined to do something about the mess this time. %I used to be so neat,% he muttered irritably. %&hat#s happened to me'% (n agitated page burst in without knocking. %)ord ieran* There#s a madrin on the north road*% %There is'% ieran blinked in surprise, guiltily relie!ed by the distraction. %Is )ord Colwyn there'% %+o, my lord*%

%,ery well.% ieran turned his back on the cluttered desk. %$is ma"esty is in his council chamber. Please inform his guards that I will be off the palace grounds.% %(t once, my lord*% The page hurried out. ieran followed at a more sedate pace, but he broke into a trot once he was in the courtyard, heading for the nearest stable hand. %I need a horse, please.% %-es, sir.% The hand dashed off for the stable and returned almost immediately with a saddled mare in tow. %Thank you.% ieran mounted the animal and trotted off toward the north coast road. (fter four years as .douard#s companion and bodyguard, he was /uite comfortable on a horse now. $e seldom e!en thought about the fact that he had not learned to ride until he was fifteen years old. &hen he arri!ed in the !icinity of the ancient north gate, he found the way blocked by a crowd of frightened people. $e dismounted and handed the reins to a boy standing at the edge of the crowd. %$old this for me, please,% he said. %I#ll gi!e you a coin when I return.% %Thank you, )ord ieran*% The boy gripped the reins with an eager grin. ieran returned his smile and made his way through the crowd. (t the front were about a do0en sheriff#s deputies spaced out in a rough line, their pikes pointed ner!ously toward the unmo!ing madrin. ieran frowned slightly when he saw the creature. There was something !aguely familiar about this madrin. $e stepped between two of the deputies and saw their looks of relief at the sight of him. %It#s "ust been sitting there, my lord,% one of the deputies said. %&hat should we do'% %1tay here for the moment,% ieran replied. $e approached the madrin and inclined his head politely. %2ood afternoon. Is there something I can do for you'% The madrin tipped its head to one side and flicked its long blue tongue out in a /uick smile. It made a lowpitched chuckling noise. The feeling of familiarity became /uite strong. %$a!e we met'% ieran asked. The madrin dipped its head in a brief nod.

ieran#s eyes widened. %(re you the madrin whose life I sa!ed'% The madrin dipped its head again, flicking its tongue out in another smile. 3elight washed through ieran and without thinking, he stepped forward and slipped his arms around the madrin#s thick neck. %It is good to see you,% he said happily. %I am so glad to know you escaped unharmed.% $e pressed his face against the softly furred side of the madrin#s face. It was hard to imagine that this massi!e creature had once been small enough for him to carry in his arms. %I take it you#re ac/uainted.% (sita spoke with faint amusement from behind him. ieran looked o!er his shoulder. (sita was standing "ust in front of the line of deputies, her one-year-old daughter perched on her hip. %This is the madrin I sa!ed when I was a boy,% he informed her. %4eally'% (sita grinned delightedly. %(nd it remembers you'% %I think it came to see me.% $e released the madrin from his embrace. %I#m not sure why, though. Is Colwyn home'% %+o.% (sita wrinkled her nose. %$e#s off on another one of his little e5cursions.% %(gain' I thought marriage and children would settle him down.% %I thought so, too,% (sita answered wryly. %$e doesn#t go as often, but he still goes.% 1he eyed the madrin thoughtfully. %6ut I#!e picked up /uite a bit about madrin from him o!er the years. 7aybe I can help.% 1he hitched the baby a little higher and stepped closer. The madrin blinked at her. 1he bowed slightly in return. %$ow do you do' Is this a social call'% The madrin shook its head and looked back at ieran. It whined softly and then pointed its nose at (sita#s daughter. ieran glanced at the child. 1he was a pretty little girl who bore a strong resemblance to her father, unlike her three-year-old sister who looked almost e5actly like (sita. The madrin uttered a /uick series of chirps and whines. (sita frowned. %I#m not sure, but I think it#s worried about something to do with a baby. +ot this one,% she stroked her daughter#s hair, %but one that has something to do with you.%

ieran stared in confusion. %6ut I don#t ha!e any children.% $e didn#t think it was necessary to add that he probably ne!er would. The madrin abruptly leaned forward and swiped ieran#s right hand with its tongue. ieran shi!ered as the flash of power from contact with the creature#s sali!a swept through him. $e closed his eyes briefly as he absorbed the surge of energy. %&hat did it do'% (sita demanded. 1he held up her free hand with the palm facing toward him, trying to sense the change in his power. ieran#s hands were tingling strangely. $e held them up, fle5ing his fingers slowly. $e glanced at (sita#s daughter. %7ay I touch her'% (sita#s brow wrinkled with concern. %I guess so.% Carefully, ieran placed his right hand on top of the little girl#s head and closed his eyes. ( sense of the child#s essence flooded his awareness. $e could feel the energy of life flowing through her small body, !ibrant with health. ieran lifted his hand and smiled at the child. Then he placed his hand on (sita#s arm. $e could feel the same life energy coursing through (sita, but there was a subtly different feel to it. $e dropped his hand and looked at the madrin. %Is this a healing power'% The madrin dipped its head and rumbled deep in its chest. ieran looked at his hand again. %-ou ha!e gi!en me this power because there is a child#s life I must sa!e'% The madrin nodded once more. %&hat child'% The madrin shrugged its shoulders in a !ery human gesture and whined in response. %I think,% (sita said slowly, %it doesn#t know. Colwyn told me that he thinks some madrin are precogniti!e, so perhaps this one foresaw something that made it decide you needed the power to heal.% %I see.% $e looked into the madrin#s enormous eyes. %&ill this happen soon'% The madrin shrugged again. %$mm8% ieran slowly made a fist. %,ery well. I guess the best I can do is be prepared.% $e stepped back and bowed to the madrin. %Thank you.%

The madrin lowered its head in a deep bow and stood up. It flicked its tongue out in another brief smile and turned to trot back up the road. ieran watched it go a little wistfully. %I was fourteen when I met that creature and it changed my life.% $e thought of .douard and smiled. %I wish I could ha!e e5plained how grateful I am for the life it ga!e me. 6ut perhaps it thought to repay me for sa!ing its life back then.% $e turned to (sita. %Thanks for your help, (sita. I#m sure Colwyn will be hugely disappointed when he finds out.% (sita snorted. %1er!es him right. $e should be home helping me raise his daughters.% 6ut then she smiled. %6ut still9 since I ne!er e5pected to be married to him in the first place, I suppose I should be more lenient.% %Perhaps.% ieran returned her smile. %I#d better get back to the palace. .douard#s council meeting has ended.% %-ou can still sense him'% (sita lifted her eyebrows in surprise. %I#m always aware of him,% ieran replied. %7y duties as his bodyguard come first.% %.douard is fortunate to ha!e you,% (sita said gra!ely. %&e are both fortunate.% ieran kissed her on the cheek goodbye and made his way back through the crowd, which was starting to disperse now that the e5citement was o!er. $e ga!e the boy holding his horse a sil!er coin and returned to the palace at a trot. &hen he arri!ed, he went straight to .douard#s study, since he knew that was where the king had gone after his council meeting. %2ood afternoon, )ord 2raelin, greeted him. %Is he busy'% %+o.% 2raelin#s tone was respectful as always, but there was "ust a hint of testiness in his response that made ieran suspect that .douard#s open schedule was probably not planned. $e smiled slightly. %3o you think he#ll mind if I interrupt'% %$e ne!er minds when you interrupt,% 2raelin replied. $e held out a stack of pages. %&ill you gi!e these to his ma"esty and remind him that he is supposed to meet with the delegation from the &aterfront 6usiness 3istrict today'% ieran,% .douard#s secretary,

ieran took the papers. %I#ll remind him.% $e stepped to the door and rapped on the panel. (s usual, .douard recogni0ed his knock. $e called out immediately, his !oice muffled by the closed door. %Come in, ieran.% ieran entered with a smile, wa!ing the pages. %I suspect 2raelin wants these back right away.% %:ndoubtedly,% .douard replied with a sour grimace. $e accepted the sheets from ieran and ieran sat down in one of the chairs in front of his desk. %3id you cancel an appointment'% %I cancelled se!eral,% .douard replied. %$ow did you know'% %2raelin seemed irritated.% .douard chuckled. %$e does ha!e to bear the brunt of the complaining when I make changes to my schedule,% he admitted. %$e wanted me to remind you about the meeting with the waterfront people.% %I remember. I hadn#t planned on cancelling that meeting.% .douard tipped his head to the side. %I heard there was a madrin out on the coast road.% %There was.% life I sa!ed.% %4eally'% %-es.% ieran#s smiled faded into a thoughtful e5pression. %It ga!e me a healing power for some reason. (sita thought the creature might ha!e foreseen the need for me to ha!e this ability. 1he said Colwyn told her he thought some madrin were precogniti!e.% %Colwyn wasn#t there'% %+o.% %$e#ll be sorry he missed it.% %:ndoubtedly. (sita and I agreed that it ser!ed him right for not staying home with her.% ieran grinned and .douard chuckled. %1o why did you cancel your appointments'% .douard sighed. %I "ust wanted some time to think.% $e leaned on his folded arms and drew a deep breath. %It came up at the council meeting again today.% ieran smiled. %It was the madrin whose

ieran went still. %7arriage'% he /uestioned softly, e!en though he was certain that was what .douard was talking about. %-es.% .douard held his eyes. %I told them last year I didn#t want to discuss it anymore, but )ady (lcasin brought it up again today. 1he said that although 3octor 1efrin declared me completely healthy, lingering /uestions are still causing some uncertainty. (nd unfortunately,% he hesitated slightly, %recent e!ents ha!e led me to belie!e she#s right.% $e sat back. %I#!e been trying to let a contract to rebuild the coast highway, but I#m not getting any bids on it. I talked to an agent for one of the guilds that could do it yesterday and he said they are concerned about how long the "ob would take and the likelihood that they might not get paid at the end. The implication being that a change on the throne might throw the contract into "eopardy.% $e sighed. %1o I think I may ha!e to do it, e!en though I thought I would ha!e a few more years before I had to make this decision.% ieran nodded slowly. $e understood what .douard was saying. 3octor 1efrin had announced that there was nothing wrong with .douard in any way, but he had done so on the heels of ieran and .douard openly becoming lo!ers. 1o people still /uestioned whether or not .douard was capable of establishing a succession, causing concern about the possibility of future turmoil. This, in turn, made people reluctant to in!est in any long term pro"ects or businesses that might be affected by a change in power, which was ha!ing an o!erall dampening effect on the kingdom#s prosperity. ;our years ago, ieran would not ha!e understood this, but he did now. %Then you should do it,% he said, trying to keep his !oice le!el. .douard continued to hold his ga0e. %This doesn#t mean I intend to stop sleeping with you.% %&hat'% ieran blinked in surprise. %6ut how8% %I ha!e to get married, but that doesn#t mean I ha!e to li!e with her.% .douard shrugged slightly. %I "ust to ha!e to ha!e a child with her. I think I can manage that.% %I see.% fair'% ieran dropped his ga0e. %6ut would that be

Instead of answering right away, .douard rose from his seat, walked around his desk, leaned o!er and cupped ieran#s face in his hands. %( king marries for politics, ieran, not lo!e. I will do what the good of

the kingdom demands, but to ha!e me li!ing in misery will not benefit this country. -ou are my lo!e and I will not gi!e that up.% $e kissed ieran soundly on the lips. %1o accept that whate!er I do, you will remain my companion of choice. (ll right'% ieran returned his ga0e, feeling his heart swell. $is feelings for .douard were so deep that upon occasion, he forgot that .douard shared them. %(s you command, 1ire,% he answered softly. -o-o-o-o-o(fter his meeting with the waterfront businessmen#s delegation, .douard sent for 7oret0. &hen the 4oyal &i0ard arri!ed, .douard wa!ed him into a seat. %7oret0, I#!e made a decision. I#m going to get married.% %4eally'% 7oret0 sat up straighter. %This is a little une5pected. (fter the council meeting, I thought you were planning to put off further discussion.% %That was my inclination,% .douard responded, %but I thought about it some more and decided that (lcasin is right. &e ha!en#t had a /ueen for so long that I think most people ha!e forgotten the role she ser!es. 6ut a /ueen could handle many of the petty court matters that you and I ha!e to shoulder right now. I also belie!e her presence would pro!ide a sense of stability that#s lacking at the moment, particularly after she pro!ides me with an heir.% %1o you would take that step.% 7oret0 spoke carefully, watching .douard#s face. %That would be the primary reason for getting married,% .douard responded with amusement. %(nd )ord ieran8'% 7oret0#s /uestioning tone didn#t immediately gi!e away his opinion on that point. %7y relationship with ieran won#t change.% %Is that wise'% 7oret0 lifted an eyebrow. %-our future /ueen might not appreciate his position between you and her.% .douard tapped a finger on the desk. %In fact, accepting the situation as it is will be one of the discriminating factors between candidates. 7y marriage is a public matter and a political necessity. 7y pri!ate life is mine. ieran has no political aspirations. (s my bodyguard and lo!er, he will always be near me. 6ut in all public, social and political situations, my future /ueen will stand at my side. 1he

will be first at court and ha!e my full support in that position.% 7oret0 nodded slowly. %That should be enough for any ambitious noblewoman, I would imagine.% $e paused. %:nless she feels she should also be first in your heart.% %;ew noblewomen e5pect to marry for lo!e, 7oret0.% %<uite true.% 7oret0 settled back in his chair. %1o ha!e you anyone in mind'% %+o.% .douard made a face. %&hen I said I didn#t want to think about it before, I meant it. I ha!en#t gi!en it any thought at all. 6ut that means I am open to considering anyone and e!eryone. 1o I was planning to simply make an announcement and let families start trotting out their finest daughters. I#ll host a number of balls and garden parties o!er the ne5t se!eral weeks and then choose someone in the fall. $ow does that sound'% %=ust fine,% 7oret0 nodded. %It will certainly make the hot summer months go by more /uickly.% %Indeed. I will want your help in winnowing down the candidates. -ou are a good "udge of character and I respect your opinion.% 7oret0 inclined his head with a smile. %Thank you, your ma"esty. It will be my honor to assist you.% $e pressed the tips of his fingers together and tapped them against his lips thoughtfully for a moment. %I do ha!e one suggestion. 1et aside blocks of time in your schedule when you will be inter!iewing candidates and include that in your announcement. >therwise, you will be inundated and you won#t ha!e any time to attend to your regular duties.% %That#s a good idea,% .douard agreed. %I#ll do that. I#ll also be sure to include that all candidates will be !etted by the 4oyal &i0ard.% %,ery good.% The two men regarded each other for a moment and then .douard drew a deep breath. %This is going to be a big change for me. I#!e come to accept that I#m not good at letting people into my life, but I#m going to ha!e to learn.% %-ou do better than you think, .douard.% 7oret0 stood up. %If you don#t mind, I#d like to go inform )ady (lcasin of your decision. 1he has been /uite distressed about this for some time.%

%That#s fine, but don#t tell anyone else. I want to make an announcement before any rumors ha!e time to start.% %>f course, 1ire.% -o-o-o-o-oThe announcement of .douard#s intention to choose a /ueen threw all of &hite 1hores into an uproar and ieran felt like the bulk of it was aimed directly at him. 1peculation and gossip about what would happen in his relationship with .douard was on e!eryone#s lips. &hile most people were polite enough not to talk about it right in front of him, a few were bold enough to come right out and ask him. The first time it happened ieran was too stunned to respond, which fueled an unfortunate rumor that he was going to be dumped. $e was better prepared the ne5t time, but his ambiguous response failed to dispel the rumor started by his first reaction. $ad duty and desire not compelled him to stay with .douard, he would ha!e snuck back to 6right Isle in a heartbeat. 1itting up in bed watching .douard finish making notes on the inter!iews he#d done that day, ieran sighed loudly. .douard glanced at him. %I#m not going to dump you, you know.% ieran started. %&hat'% %That#s the rumor, isn#t it'% .douard turned in his chair. %That I#m going to kick you out after I get married.% %I know you#re not.% ieran shifted uncomfortably. %6ut I#m really getting sick of hearing about it. I#!e ne!er talked openly about our relationship, so why should anyone e5pect me to do so now' They take my silence as confirmation that I#m on my way out.% %3oes it bother you'% ieran frowned. %It shouldn#t, but it does.% $e fidgeted, sliding the goose-down-stuffed silk co!erlet between his fingers. %$a!e you inter!iewed 7ichia 7achura yet'% %+ot yet.% .douard studied his face. %I could skip her, if you want. I know you ha!e no lo!e for her father.% %$e tried to cut me in two,% ieran grumbled, slumping down in the bed with his arms crossed. %(nd he#s ne!er apologi0ed. Is it my fault for carrying a grudge'%

%$ad he not done that, we might not ha!e met.% %I know, but still8% .douard chuckled softly. $e screwed the cap onto his ink pot, carefully cleaned his pen, and then came o!er to the bed. %-our feelings carry weight in this matter, too, ieran.% $e sat on the edge of the bed facing the young wi0ard and put his arms around him. %6y necessity, you will be close to my /ueen and heirs. 1he will ha!e to be someone you can at least respect, but better still if you can be friends. 1o please don#t hesitate to speak up if someone rubs you the wrong way. There are at least three do0en eligible women in the kingdom. I can afford to gi!e you the right of first refusal.% ieran ga0ed at .douard for a moment, then leaned forward and kissed him. %Thank you, .douard. I shouldn#t be selfish, but I can#t help it.% .douard returned his kiss. %6e as selfish as you want. -our possessi!eness warms my heart.% ieran lifted a finger and the lamps in the room immediately dimmed. .douard pushed him down among the pillows, his embrace tightening, and ieran moaned softly in helpless pleasure. .!er since their first night together, intimacy with .douard was his greatest "oy. ;rom that first tentati!e, uncertain e5ploration of each other until now, when they knew each other#s desires and pleasures on the deepest possible le!el, ieran had ne!er felt a moment#s regret for gi!ing in to his passion for .douard. $is lo!e for his king was as much a part of him as his magic. .douard#s deep kiss filled him with arousal and he let desire take control. ;or four years, nothing had come between them and he refused to speculate on what changes might lay ahead. ;or now, .douard was his and that was all that mattered. Chapter ?: A New Class %.douard ne!er ceases to ama0e me,% 3i!wall said, studying the latest royal proclamation with interest. % nowing him, I doubt anyone talked him into this. $e must ha!e decided on his own to take this step.% 1eated ne5t to her on the shady bench in a secluded garden of the &i0ards $all, (mrisen nodded. %It#s been a long time since there was a /ueen in &hite 1hores,% she said. %I#m glad his ma"esty made this decision. It should /uell any lingering concerns about the future of the kingdom.%

%-es,% 3i!wall smirked. %(ll up until they find out he has no intention of remo!ing ieran from his bed. I ha!e ne!er seen two people so tightly bound to each other.% %That#s true,% (mrisen acknowledged. %Their affection for each other is genuinely deep.% 3i!wall glanced at her curiously. %$a!e you read them'% %In passing.% (mrisen#s smile was gentle. %I#!e only had one occasion to touch his ma"esty, but )ord ieran has let me touch him a number of times. $e is e5tremely de!oted to ing .douard. $is faithfulness is ingrained at the deepest le!els of his personality.% %1o I ha!e noticed,% 3i!wall chuckled, %and I do not need a soothsayer#s ability to see that. 1till8% 1he glanced at the proclamation again. %I will be curious to see how .douard#s marriage affects ieran. The thought of someone with his power e5periencing a "ealous rage terrifies me.% %I think there is nothing to fear,% (mrisen said, closing her eyes and settling back against the bench#s comfortably angled seatback. %.douard#s de!otion is "ust as great.% 3i!wall listened to (mrisen drift into slumber while fanning herself with the proclamation. It was already getting hot, e!en though spring was barely half o!er. 6ut the warmth eased the lingering ache in her knees brought on by arthritis, so she welcomed it. -et the warmth also reminded her that the current school year was nearly o!er and they would soon be graduating another crop of young wi0ards. My last crop, she thought with a wistful sigh. It had been a hard decision, but 3i!wall had decided it was time for her to step down as 3irector of Trainees. $er age and ad!ancing arthritis were making it harder and harder for her to get about, and while she could do many of her duties from the comfort of her office, she couldn#t do e!erything from there. 1o she had spent the last year grooming her replacement, a young royal wi0ard named .stan 7urdock. 2a!ilan had /uestioned her for choosing someone so young, since .stan had only graduated fi!e years ago, but the young man had a nearly encyclopedic memory for detail and he was incredibly patient. Plus, he actually wanted the "ob, which was not something that could be said of any of the other royal wi0ards li!ing in the &i0ards $all. ;our years

ago, 3i!wall had assigned him the task of finding gainful employment for graduating wi0ards, following the &i0ard 4ebellion led by Imbario, and he was highly successful. +early all of the wi0ards who had graduated since then were working, and discontent, as near as she could tell, had dropped. %)ady 3i!wall,% a young man#s !oice called. 3i!wall turned toward the approaching young man with a smile. %I was "ust thinking about you, .stan,% she said. .stan had a flat leather pouch stuffed with papers tucked under his arm. $e was nearly as tall as she was, but with a thin, wiry build. $is rust-colored hair was trimmed short abo!e his ears, but tended to grow long on top and fall into his green eyes. $is face was a little too narrow to be handsome, but the friendly smile he almost always wore made him pleasant to look at. %I#m sorry to interrupt you while you#re rela5ing.% %It#s fine, but let#s go somewhere else to talk so we don#t disturb (mrisen.% .stan automatically offered her his arm and 3i!wall accepted it, le!ering herself carefully to her feet. .stan#s height made him a comfortable crutch and 3i!wall felt no shame as she put her weight on his arm, her cane clutched firmly in her other hand. .stan#s customary smile was missing and 3i!wall glanced at him curiously. %Is something the matter'% %&ell8% .stan frowned. %I don#t know.% The concern in his tone focused 3i!wall#s attention. %&hat is it'% %I ha!en#t been able to locate Pel $arper.% 3i!wall pursed her lips. The name was familiar. %&asn#t he in last year#s class'% %-es,% .stan nodded. %$e had the distinction of being at the bottom of his class. I was ha!ing a lot of trouble placing him, but I finally sent him to talk to an apothecary shop in $erst, down near the southern f"ords, about making herbal remedies for them. I sent a letter recently to see how he was getting on and the shop told me he ne!er showed up. I#!e made some in/uiries and no one seems to know what became of him. It bothered me, so I thought I#d better check on some of my other remote placements to make sure they had gotten where they were going.% $e stopped and ga0ed worriedly at 3i!wall. %There are fi!e others

missing in addition to Pel. I don#t know what to make of it.% 3i!wall returned his worried ga0e. %1i5 wi0ards missing'*% 1he clasped his arm. %-ou#re /uite certain'% %-es.% .stan nodded unhappily. %&hat do you think I should do'% %I think...% 3i!wall#s eyes lost focus as she thought about it. In the past, they had not really kept track of graduates, especially those who did not become royal wi0ards. &ere these disappearances something new or had they been going on all along' %I think we need to see how far back these disappearances go. )et#s pull the records for the past ten classes and see if anyone else cannot be accounted for.% .stan nodded. %I#ll do that right away, my lady.% $e sketched a hasty bow and hurried off down the path. 3i!wall watched him lea!e, chewing on her lip. %I hope this is nothing,% she murmured. %&e wi0ards don#t need any more troubles.% -o-o-o-o-o-o.douard disliked ha!ing dinner with anyone other than ieran if it was not a dinner meeting. (lthough technically, this dinner with )ord 7achura and his daughter 7ichia was a meeting, the two of them were not treating it like one. 7ichia gushed with charm which, under other circumstances, he might ha!e found amusing. )ord 7achura, on the other hand, acted like he was hosting the dinner, rather than the other way around. %>h, your ma"esty,% 7ichia said warmly, leaning forward to better display her clea!age, %I am so glad to ha!e this opportunity to dine with you pri!ately. I "ust know that we ha!e many things in common* I so look forward to becoming better ac/uainted.% %Indeed,% .douard replied noncommittally. $e sipped his wine. %(s you are no doubt aware, I will be meeting with many young ladies to determine who will be best suited to become the future /ueen of &hite 1hores. That determination will rest on a number of factors, only one of which is compatibility with me.% 7ichia made a face, but it was her father who spoke. %I do hope compatibility with )ord ieran will not be a consideration,% )ord 7achura said stiffly. %I would hate to think your decision might be colored by unfortunate past incidents.%

.douard raised an eyebrow. %:nfortunate'% he /uestioned. %I daresay that#s not how ieran sees it. 6ut ieran#s opinion will be one thing I consider. I greatly respect his "udgment of character.% $e smiled slightly. %(nd it#s not his opinion of you that matters here. It#s his opinion of 7ichia.% $e looked at the young lady as he said this and saw a flash of dismay on her face, which she /uickly smoothed away. %I ha!e nothing but respect for )ord ieran,% 7ichia said, but it was rather ob!iously a lie. 1he toyed with her wine glass. %(m I correct in assuming he will continue in his role as your bodyguard'% %-ou may assume that ieran will continue in all of the roles he currently holds,% .douard replied. %>h'% 7ichia#s cheeks colored. %6ut, after marriage...% %( king#s marriage is a matter of state, 7ichia,% .douard said. %I do not e5pect my personal life to be much impacted.% 7ichia#s flush deepened and she dropped her eyes. %-our ma"esty,% )ord 7achura inter"ected, %that hardly seems like the most auspicious way to begin your marriage. -our /ueen#s position at court would be undermined from the !ery beginning* $ow is she supposed to maintain order'% %&ith the authority of her title.% .douard frowned slightly. %If the situation is too intimidating for a candidate, I would e5pect her to say so and remo!e herself from consideration. I imagine a truly ambitious woman will be pragmatic enough to appreciate the benefits of being /ueen without worrying about whether or not she#s first in line to share my bed.% %>f course, your ma"esty*% 7ichia said /uickly. %6eing /ueen is a dream any young noblewoman would be glad to achie!e* 7y father and I are simply concerned about how comfortable our life together would be under certain... circumstances.% 1he smiled warmly, her e5pression open and rela5ed. .douard was not fooled. In his opinion, she had no intention of sharing him with anyone9 least of all ieran. $e picked up his fork. %I am glad to hear you say so.% They ate in silence for a moment and then 7achura cleared his throat. %-our ma"esty, I imagine that the family of your future /ueen might look forward to a general ad!ance in their political fortunes.%

%That is likely.% %+e!ertheless, I hope the selection process will not affect my recent application for the !acancy on your senior council. $a!e other nobles also applied'% .douard took his time responding to be sure that his !oice would not betray his irritation. )ord 7achura had been getting rather demanding in his repeated re/uests to be appointed to the council seat left !acant by )ord 3obric. ( few other nobles had been pushing for it as well, but none so persistently as 7achura. %)ord 7achura, the purpose of this e!ening is to allow me to become better ac/uainted with your daughter and to re!iew her /ualifications for the position of /ueen. I do not intend to discuss any other matters.% %>f course, your ma"esty. ;orgi!e me.% 7achura inclined his bead, but he did not look or sound all that sorry. $e mostly appeared annoyed. .douard choose to ignore that and returned his attention to 7ichia. %1o, 7ichia, please tell me more about your interests.% Thankfully, 7achura remained silent after that and allowed 7ichia to talk about the things she en"oyed doing, which mostly seemed to be attending parties and shopping. .douard wondered if she e!en understood what duties were e5pected of a /ueen. 1he certainly did not seem to recogni0e that the position would actually re/uire her to work. $e was glad when the dinner ended and he could politely e5cuse himself. $e was much too tense and looked forward to spending the rest of the e!ening in ieran#s company. $e was not surprised to find ieran waiting up for him, half-reclined in bed reading a book. %$ow was dinner'% ieran asked, e!en though he could probably guess "ust from looking at .douard#s face. %Irritating. I think in the future I will issue my in!itations to the young ladies only and not allow any of her family members to attend.% $e stripped out of his "acket and cra!at as he spoke and flopped on the bed. %Can you belie!e 7achura had the audacity to bring up the !acant council seat'% %In fact, I#m not surprised,% ieran replied with a faint snort. %7achura has been campaigning for the position almost from the day of )ord 3obric#s e5ecution. I always thought it was rather unseemly.% ieran leaned o!er and put his book on the nightstand. %Is he the best /ualified'%

%$e#s /ualified,% .douard answered with a shrug. %I don#t know about the best /ualified. There are certainly others who are e/ually /ualified.% ieran sat up and crossed his legs. %&hy ha!en#t you picked anyone yet'% .douard shrugged. %It hasn#t been that critical. The people remaining on the council ha!e been meeting my re/uirements, so I ha!en#t felt a pressing need to replace 3obric. 6esides, the number of seats on the council isn#t actually fi5ed. It really depends on how many !oices a king likes to hear during a discussion, and whether or not he feels a particular family deser!es the recognition. In my case, I#m feeling /uite comfortable with the present situation, so I#!e kept it.% %7akes sense.% ieran looked down, fiddling with the blankets. %1o what did you think of 7ichia'% %+ot much. 1he clearly has no idea what is e5pected of a /ueen. I doubt I#ll bother speaking to her again.% ieran smiled slightly. %I#m glad. I still ha!en#t forgi!en her for trying to slip you that lo!e potion.% %It didn#t work. -our spell protected me.% %It#s the fact that she tried that upsets me.% .douard laughed softly and mo!ed closer so he could put his arms around ieran. %I would ne!er ha!e pegged you for the "ealous type.% ieran blushed. %I wouldn#t ha!e either. 6ut these last four years ha!e made me !ery possessi!e. I lo!e you !ery much, .douard.% %I lo!e you, too.% .douard kissed ieran deeply. $olding ieran always rela5ed him, right before it ga!e him amorous ideas. %I ha!e a lunch appointment tomorrow with )ady Corso#s daughter (nnette. (fter that, I ha!e no more appointments for a few days. &hy don#t we go sailing'% %That sounds like fun. &e ha!en#t been sailing since last summer.% %-ou mean I ha!en#t,% .douard scowled. %-ou#!e been to 6right Isle twice and I assume you#ll be going to graduation ne5t week as well.% %Taking the ferry to 6right Isle is not the same as going sailing,% ieran chuckled. %(t least you#re on the lake.% .douard sighed. %I#m not getting away as much as I#d like to.%

%It will get better after you#re married. ;rom what I#!e heard, court life really hasn#t been normal since your mother died and you fell ill. The lines of succession get pretty blurry after you. 7oret0 was telling me that ha!ing fi!e or si5 people, some of them adults, in line for the throne would impro!e the political situation considerably.% .douard pushed ieran o!er. %I suppose, but I don#t want to talk about it anymore.% ieran#s lips parted in a half smile and .douard used the opportunity to resume kissing him deeply. $e knew that ha!ing a male lo!er, and intending to keep him despite getting married, was probably not in the kingdom#s best interest, but .douard had spent his entire childhood ne!er e5pecting to ha!e a future. +ow that he had to worry about and plan for the future of the kingdom, he found it difficult to relate that planning to himself personally. &hat he had to do as king always seemed disconnected from the life he li!ed with ieran. 6ut he ne!ertheless intended to do what was right for the kingdom, and that meant getting married, allowing his future /ueen to run the court as a /ueen should, and ha!ing children with her. $e "ust prayed that it would not destroy his relationship with ieran. -o-o-o-o-o-oieran sensed the change in mood in the palace almost as soon as he stepped out of his office the morning after .douard#s dinner with 7ichia 7achura. $e#d spent the morning diligently trying to reduce the clutter on his desk with only moderate success, but had decided that he deser!ed a lunch break anyway. -et as soon as he stepped into the hall, he sensed tension in the air. 2roups of nobles stood in tight knots talking intensely, so in!ol!ed in their con!ersations that they did not e!en acknowledge him as he passed. 6ut as he turned a corner into the hallway leading to the dining room, he suddenly found himself face to face with emian 3obric. The son of the late )ord 3obric e5ecuted for treason against the crown four years ago, emian had spent the inter!ening years trying desperately to pro!e that his father had acted alone and without the knowledge of the rest of the family. $e had worked hard to reco!er the family#s fortune, de!astated by the fine they#d had to pay and the loss of business that resulted from other families disassociating themsel!es from them. It was a tribute to his business sense and

dedication that the family was still /uite wealthy, despite the circumstances. %)ord ieran*% about this'* 3id emian e5claimed. %3id you know ing .douard arrange it'%

ieran stared at him. %I ha!e no idea what you#re talking about.% emian blinked in surprise. %-ou ha!en#t heard the talk' (bout the (mbreas'% %I#!e not heard a thing. &hat#s going on'% %( daughter of the (mbrea family arri!ed at court this morning, presumably to present herself as a candidate for /ueen.% emian paused to draw an offended breath. %1urely his ma"esty does not mean to consider someone from that re!iled family'% To hear such a statement coming from someone in emian#s position made ieran goggle. %)ord 3obric,% he said, %please remember that I did not grow up at court. &ho are the (mbreas and why are they hated'% %(h, forgi!e me, my lord,% emian said /uickly. %-ou#!e been at court so long it is easy to forget that you ha!e not always been here.% $e leaned closer and lowered his !oice confidentially. %+o doubt you recall the &i0ard &ars of ancient times.% (t ieran#s slight nod, he continued. %It is common knowledge that the (mbrea family profited from the war by selling supplies and weapons to the forces supporting the rogue wi0ard (tarkan. They amassed such a fortune that they are wealthy to this day, owning !ast swathes of land east of &hite 1hores and in the far south. &hy, most of the land beyond the southern f"ords belongs to them.% %I did not know that,% ieran said, rather surprised. %1o I take it that it is unusual to see a member of that family at court.% %.5tremely unusual, )ord ieran. They ne!er lea!e their estate e5cept on business and almost ne!er come to &hite 1hores. I personally ha!e ne!er e!en met one of them.% %I see.% ieran looked around at the agitated nobles. $e was surprised that he had not heard this story before. 6ut then, if the (mbreas were really that reclusi!e and disliked, perhaps it was no surprise at all. %&ell, I can tell you that his ma"esty said nothing to me about it, so perhaps the situation is not what you imagine.%

%6ut how could it be otherwise'% emian e5claimed agitatedly. %&hat other reason could there be for them to send a daughter to court'% ieran took a step toward the dining room, trying to e5tricate himself from the con!ersation. %I#m sure we will all learn more in time, )ord 3obric. If you#ll please e5cuse me.% 6ut instead of going to the dining room, he went to .douard#s office, e!en though he knew .douard was meeting with someone. %)ord ieran,% 2raelin greeted him. %$is ma"esty is in a meeting.% %I know. I#ll wait.% ieran sat down in the waiting area, smiling disarmingly at the handful of people who were already waiting to see .douard. $e had been there only a few minutes when the door to .douard#s office opened, and he was surprised to see .douard appear escorting his !isitor. The older, white-haired gentleman was unfamiliar to ieran. $e had a narrow face with a straight nose and large gray eyes, and he stood "ust a little taller than the king. %Thank you for your consideration, your ma"esty,% he was saying as the door opened. %7y niece will be staying at court for se!eral weeks, so please do not unduly disrupt your schedule on our behalf.% %It is no disruption, )ord (mbrea. It is my plan right now to meet with as many noblewomen as possible, so including your niece is no incon!enience.% .douard shook the gentleman#s hand. %2ood afternoon.% %2ood afternoon, your ma"esty.% The older gentleman bowed and departed without making eye contact with anyone. ieran noted the number of dark scowls directed at his retreating back. % ieran*% .douard e5claimed. %I did not e5pect to see you until later.% %I know,% ieran said. %Can you fit me in when you#re finished here'% %>f course.% .douard turned e5pectantly to 2raelin, and 2raelin immediately indicated a woman sitting near ieran. %)ady Pesh has the ne5t appointment, sire,% he said. .douard inclined his head slightly toward the woman. %7y lady.% )ady Pesh threw a slightly surprised look at ieran, but she immediately rose to enter .douard#s office.

ieran ended up ha!ing to wait not /uite two hours for his turn with .douard. &hen he finally entered, .douard grinned at him. %It must be something unusual for you to wait for an appointment.% %&ell, actually,% ieran scratched his head. %It#s about that man you were seeing earlier: )ord (mbrea.% .douard wrinkled his nose. %I imagine the palace is in an uproar.% %To say the least, and I had no idea why until 3obric e5plained it to me.% emian

% emian'%.douard chuckled. %I bet that sounded odd.% ieran nodded and sat down facing .douard. %I had ne!er e!en heard of the (mbreas before this.% %I#m not surprised. People don#t talk about them, mainly "ust to a!oid inad!ertent association. They really are re!iled, but it is un"ust.% %4eally'% %-es,% .douard nodded. %I studied the &i0ard &ars e5tensi!ely when I was an in!alid. The (mbreas did not profit anymore than anyone else during that time. 6ut the family did not suffer particularly under (tarkan either. In all likelihood, they collaborated with him to a!oid ha!ing to fight against him. The &hite 1hores families who resisted his rule suffered pretty badly. (fter (tarkan was destroyed, the (mbreas were dri!en out of &hite 1hores. I#m actually /uite surprised they chose to come back now.% %1o they really are offering up a daughter for your consideration'% %-es. $er name is Celli. 1he#s already here, but I won#t be able to meet with her until tomorrow.% .douard suddenly sat up straighter. %1ay, would you mind ha!ing dinner with her tonight' $er uncle is planning to lea!e right away and she#ll be all alone. 1ince you ha!e no preconcei!ed opinions about her family, it will allow her at least one relati!ely stress-free meal.% ieran shrugged. %1ure, why not'% %Thanks. -ou can tell me what you think of her in bed tonight. I ha!e a dinner meeting with the senior council,% .douard continued with a grimace. %They want to talk about fishing rights.% %That sounds boring.% %There are worse topics.%

ieran stood up and leaned across the desk to gi!e .douard a kiss. %I#ll see you tonight.% Chapter @: Celli Ambrea ieran had thought he would ha!e to ask the elderly seneschal, )ord irkly, who was in charge of assigning /uarters to guests, where Celli (mbrea had been housed. 6ut as it turned out, he stumbled across her room on his way to look for )ord irkly, because a do0en or so upset nobles were collected in the hallway outside her door, insisting that the two silent and unmo!ing guards posted there allow them to enter and demand she lea!e. ieran stopped to watch the scene for a moment and decided the situation called for wi0ardly inter!ention. $e drew himself up and straightened his wi0ard#s robes. %&hat is the meaning of this spectacle'% he snapped out. The collection of nobles "umped in surprise and whirled to face him. %There is an (mbrea in that room*% one woman e5claimed in a deeply aggrie!ed tone. %&e don#t want her kind here*% %$er kind'% ieran growled. %&hat kind would that be'% $e glared from person to person. %( young woman of noble blood from one of the oldest families in the kingdom' That kind'% The woman#s mouth worked silently. 1he looked /uickly to either side, appealing for support. (n older nobleman took up the charge. %The (mbreas fought on the side of the rogue wi0ard (tarkan* They amassed a fortune and bought acres of land from nobles left destitute for resisting (tarkan* They should not be allowed to sociali0e with decent people*% ieran folded his arms across his chest. %1o you#re telling me that out of all the noble families descended from that time, none of them sided with (tarkan e5cept the (mbreas'% %&ell, no8% the man began, flustered, %but they gained the most*% %I see.% ieran regarded him steadily. %1o the (mbreas are hated because they were more successful than other families at taking ad!antage of the turmoil.% %That#s not what I mean*%

%That#s not important*% The woman who had spoken first interrupted. %It#s not "ust that they sold supplies and weapons to (tarkan. They used their profits to take ad!antage of families who tried to do the right thing. Their estate in the east is cobbled together from land once owned by other families.% ieran#s eyes slid o!er the group until he spotted someone near the back. The young man was nodding !igorously at the woman#s words as he whispered some comment to a young woman standing beside him. %)ord 7iako,% ieran called out. %3idn#t your family buy the former )ord 7ederlane#s northern holdings after they were confiscated by the crown'% The young man started at being addressed. %:h, yes, )ord ieran.% %6ut I assume you do not consider that taking ad!antage of a family#s misfortune.% %>f8 of course not,% he stammered. %The estate was put to auction* 1omeone had to buy it and take care of the tenants.% %I see.% ieran returned his ga0e to the man and woman at the front. %1o can anyone here tell me the difference if the (mbreas bought confiscated land to protect tenants all those years ago' It is my understanding that records from that time are sketchy. I would hate to think you are basing your opinions on rumors handed down and distorted for centuries. I am not a nobleman by birth, but I grew up belie!ing nobles were better bred than that.% It was a lie, but he en"oyed the looks of shame and dismay that skittered across their faces at the remark. %I urge you to remember your breeding and treat our guest with the dignity and courtesy that her rank demands.% $e leaned forward slightly. %6ecause I would hate to ha!e to put a spell on this hallway rendering anyone who enters it utterly speechless.% The nobles blinked at him in alarm and hastily backed away. ieran watched them retreat with a chuckle and a shake of his head. Then he turned to the guards. %$is ma"esty asked me to dine with 7iss (mbrea this e!ening. >ur dinner should be arri!ing shortly.% %,ery good, my lord,% one of the guards said gra!ely. $e turned to the door and rapped on the panel. %-es'% a soft, female !oice called from inside. %$is ma"esty#s bodyguard, )ord with you, my lady.% ieran, is here to dine

%Please come in.% The guard opened the door for him and ieran glided into the room. Celli#s room was a wide rectangle, with a large canopied bed at one end and a couch and chairs in front of a large fireplace at the other. In between, under the windows, was a small dining table with two chairs. Celli had been seated in one of these chairs, but she rose to face him with a brief curtsey. ieran studied her curiously. 1he was a slender young woman with !ery long, nearly coal black hair that hung straight down her back. $er face reminded him of the gentleman he saw earlier, although hers was more o!al than narrow and her straight nose was not as long. 6ut her eyes were almost e5actly like his, e5tremely large and a deep gray like storm clouds. %$ow do you do, )ord ieran'% she said in a soft !oice. %I am !ery pleased to meet you.% %I#m pleased to meet you, too, 7iss (mbrea,% ieran replied. %$is ma"esty anticipated that you would be the target of hostility, so he asked me to dine with you tonight.% $e smiled warmly. %I#!e dispersed the people outside your door and I don#t think they#ll be back, so you should be able to rest easy tonight.% ( tight smile touched her lips. %Thank you, my lord. I knew it would not be easy coming here, but I did not e5pect the animosity to be so8 pointed.% 1he indicated the other chair at her table. %&ill you please sit down'% %Thank you.% ieran mo!ed to the offered seat, but waited until Celli had resumed hers before sitting down. %I wasn#t sure what kind of food you liked, so I ordered something of a sampler. I hope that#s all right.% %-ou#re !ery considerate.% Celli dropped her eyes. %7ay I be honest'% %>f course.% %I know about your relationship with the king, )ord ieran.% $er ga0e flicked up briefly. %I wish you to understand that I did not come here seeking to supplant you. 7y family#s goal is much simpler.% 1he looked up and met his eyes. %&e wish to escape the social e5ile in which we ha!e e5isted for the last eight centuries.% $er mouth twisted bitterly. %&e are treated like pariahs, e!en when people come to us to borrow money or to ask us to in!est in a !enture. (ny person

who marries into our family is in!ariably disowned by their own family afterward.% %-ou think becoming /ueen will change that'% %It must*% she replied firmly. %+othing else we#!e tried has broken us free.% ieran sat back in his chair. %The people outside told me your family took ad!antage of other families# misfortunes during the &i0ard &ars and bought up huge /uantities of land.% %That#s not true*% Celli#s eyes flashed angrily. %>ur family originally came from the far south. 6efore the &i0ard &ars, &hite 1hores only controlled the land around the lake. .!erything below the southern f"ords was independent and most of it has been owned by us since that time. The land is not as arable as the land here in the north, but the nati!e grasses are !ery nutritious for gra0ing, so raising cattle is our family business. Centuries ago, traders would come down from the north to buy our cattle and dri!e it north to the slaughterhouses to feed &hite 1hores. .!en then, the population of the city was enormous. >ne of my ancestors thought we could do better by dri!ing the cattle north oursel!es and selling it directly to the slaughterhouses. 1o he bought some !acant land east of &hite 1hores from the crown that could be used to pen the cattle after the dri!e and built a manor house.% Celli looked down at her hands, clasped together in her lap. %That was about a decade before the start of the &i0ard &ars. &hen the war began, we continued to dri!e cattle north to feed the city. &e ne!er sold weapons. =ust food.% 1he looked up, her eyes moist. %&e made a lot of money, because (tarkan bought most of the cattle and ga!e it to the citi0ens to make them complacent. 6ut he probably stole that money from noble families. I think8% 1he hesitated briefly. %I think he would sometimes pay with stolen land.% 1he fell silent and ieran nodded. %I see. That would look an awful lot like collaboration.% %6ut we weren#t the only ones*% Celli said /uickly. %>ther families did other things to help (tarkan*% %I ha!e no doubt of that,% ieran replied. %If I ha!e learned one thing since coming to court, it#s that nobles are a !ery greedy lot. They ha!e all they need, but they always want more.%

%I suppose you could say the same of us,% Celli said unhappily. %&e are wealthy beyond words and now we seek to win the throne.% %3o you still sell cattle'% Celli nodded. %7ost of the beef eaten in &hite 1hores comes from our southern holdings. 6ut no one wants to admit that.% ieran shook his head slowly. %I didn#t know any of this. 1ince I grew up a ser!ant and went straight to the &i0ards $all, I ha!en#t had much in the way of a formal education. 7ost of what I know I#!e learned from .douard.% %I ha!e heard that ing .douard is !ery intelligent.% Celli spoke hesitantly, as if reluctant to bring up the sub"ect of .douard. %-es, he is. $e#s probably the smartest and most knowledgeable person I#!e e!er met.% %-ou must be !ery fond of him.% %I am.% ieran watched her face as he answered, wondering what she was thinking. &as she put off by the prospect of marrying a man who was notoriously in lo!e with another man' 1he shifted slightly in her seat. %)ord ieran, were I to become ing .douard#s wife, I understand the role I would play in his life. $e needs a /ueen and a mother for his children, not a life companion. I know other young women might be dismayed by the prospect of sharing their husband with someone else, but I understand the necessity. &e nobles seldom marry by choice and ha!ing a companion of the heart is to be e5pected. &hat I wish for people to see in me as /ueen is that we (mbreas place the good of the kingdom abo!e oursel!es. I wish to redeem the reputation of my family. &hat I want most is to earn the respect of the court.% 1he looked into his eyes and drew a breath. %I will not try to come between you and ing .douard. I would like to become a part of your li!es, not a disruption of them.% ieran slowly smiled. %7iss (mbrea, thank you for honesty. In return, I will tell you honestly that it is difficult for me to face the prospect of sharing .douard with someone else, but you gi!e me reason to hope that all will ultimately be well.% $is smile widened at a firm knock on the door. %(nd here is our dinner. Perfect timing* Come in*%

Two ser!ants entered carrying co!ered trays. They swiftly transferred se!eral dishes to the table, along with a carafe of wine and two goblets. %I hope you like red wine,% de!eloped a taste for it.% ieran said. %I#m afraid I#!e

%I prefer red wine,% Celli said. >ne of the ser!ants filled their goblets. %&ill you ha!e further need of us, my lord'% he asked as he poured. %+o, thank you. &e#ll manage.% %,ery good, my lord.% The pair retreated and left the two of them alone. %I#ll tell you a secret,% ieran said in a confiding tone. %I#!e gotten .douard addicted to eating what nobles like to call #common# food. ( few of these dishes fall into that category. I hope you don#t mind.% %+ot at all*% Celli#s smile was genuine. %&e eat so much beef at the estate I look forward to ha!ing more fish now that I#m close to the lake.% %2ood, because I ordered two fish dishes,% ieran said. $e unco!ered a shallow dish and the smell of wine and garlic wafted out. %This one is really good.% %It smells wonderful*% Celli leaned forward, her large eyes wide with delight, and reached for the ser!ing spoon. %7ay I help myself'% %Please do.% The two of them chatted about the meal as they ate. Celli was e5cited by the local dishes she had ne!er had before and ate them with relish. 1he also described se!eral dishes that were specialties on their estate and promised to gi!e recipes to the palace kitchen so he could try them. (ll in all, it was one of the most pleasant e!enings ieran had e!er had. Celli was e5tremely well-educated and talking to her in some ways reminded him of talking to .douard. 6y the end of the e!ening, she was rela5ed and happy9 a far cry from the tense young woman who had greeted him earlier. %Thank you so much for dining with me, )ord ieran,% Celli said when the meal was o!er. %-ou ha!e made my first night here a wonderful e5perience.% %I am glad .douard suggested it,% ieran am !ery happy to ha!e gotten to know walked him to the door and ieran took %Please don#t hesitate to send for me if replied. %I you.% 1he her hand. you need

anything, especially if you are mistreated. -ou are .douard#s guest and we will not tolerate that.% 1he smiled happily. %I will keep that in mind, )ord ieran. 2ood night.% %2ood night, 7iss (mbrea.% ieran was not surprised to find a ser!ant waiting outside the door with a large tray. (fter bowing /uickly to Celli, he slipped into the room to clear her table under the watchful eye of one of her guards. ieran used the moment to address himself to the other guard. %&ill 7iss (mbrea#s room be under guard all night'% %-es, my lord,% the guard rumbling in his big chest. %&ill do, my lord.% ieran walked slowly back to the rooms he shared with .douard, his hands tucked into the slee!es of his robe. The halls were relati!ely empty, which was not all that unusual for the hour, but he wandered if his threat had frightened people away. $e hoped so. There were too many people li!ing in the palace anyway, in his opinion. &hen he arri!ed at his door, .douard#s guards were standing outside wearing their usual dour e5pressions. They nodded to him without speaking as he stepped between them. .douard was reclined on the couch when he entered, a book propped up on his belly. %That is not a good position to read in,% admonished him. ieran answered, his !oice

%2ood. 1end for me if there are any issues.%

.douard grinned. %It#s comfortable.% $e sat up and put the book on the table. %-ou were at dinner a long time.% $is statement was partly unspoken /uestion. ieran sat down ne5t to him. %I like her,% he said without preamble. %1he#s smart, pragmatic, and not afraid to admit what she#s after.% %&hich is'% %4edemption for her family.% %&hat did she tell you'% .douard leaned back and listened as ieran recounted the story Celli had told him about her family#s history. %Plus,% ieran concluded, %she thinks it#s perfectly reasonable for you to ha!e a #companion of the heart#, as she put it. 1he#s perfectly happy "ust being /ueen.%

%That would be good, if it#s the truth.% %I belie!e her.% ieran took .douard#s hand. %-ou should meet with her. I think you#ll like her, too.% %(ll right. I#ll tell 2raelin to fit her in for lunch tomorrow.% %2ood.% ieran slipped his hand into .douard#s hair and drew the young king#s mouth to his. %)et#s go to bed. I don#t want to keep you up late.% .douard#s smile turned sensuous. %&hich means you probably will.% ieran smiled back. %7aybe "ust a little late.% -o-o-o-o-o-o-oCelli walked stoically through the palace hallways, her two silent guards pacing along behind her. 1he could not see their faces, but she could imagine the e5pressions they wore. The eyes of people who ga!e her dark looks, or opened their mouths as if to speak, would suddenly flick past her and widen with alarm, and then mouths would snap closed and angry faces would go blank. In this way, she was able to walk all the way to ing .douard#s office unaccosted. The antechamber where the king#s secretary sat was empty e5cept for that gentleman. $e rose as she entered and offered her a polite bow. %2ood afternoon, 7iss (mbrea,% he said. %$is ma"esty is e5pecting you.% $e preceded her to the inner door and rapped on the panel briefly before opening it without waiting for a response. %7iss (mbrea is here for her lunch appointment, sire.% %Thank you, 2raelin.% ing .douard rose from behind his desk and came around to greet Celli. %&elcome to &hite 1hores, 7iss (mbrea.% $e offered her his hand. Celli took it and curtsied before meeting his eyes. %Thank you, your ma"esty.% %I hope you don#t mind that I ordered lunch here,% .douard continued. %I confess I had not planned to meet with any of the applicants for /ueen for a few days, but you completely charmed my companion and he insisted that I meet with you as soon as possible.% %)ord ieran was delightful company, your ma"esty,% Celli replied with a small smile. %I admit I was also /uite charmed.% .douard guided her to a seat at a small table that was positioned near a large window. &arm, scented air flowed through the open window and Celli glanced out briefly before she sat down. (n

attracti!e garden laden with flowers was !isible below the window. %>h* $ow lo!ely*% %It is beautiful, isn#t it'% .douard said. %&hen I was young, I was ne!er allowed to ha!e the windows open because they feared for my health. 1o now I tend to lea!e the windows open all the time, e5cept in the middle of winter.% Celli took her seat. %The insects don#t bother you'% %+o.% .douard smiled guiltily. %I allow ieran to s/uander his powers by placing a repelling spell on the windows in the rooms I use. It keeps the insects out.% Celli blinked in surprise. 1he had ne!er considered that magic could be used for such a practical and mundane thing. ;or historical reasons, her family shunned the use of magic, so she had little e5perience with wi0ards. Thinking back on her dinner with ieran now, she could not recall anything he had done or said that struck her as o!ertly #wi0ardly#. %I#!e been told,% .douard said in a casual tone, %that treating women who are seeking my hand like "ob applicants is off-putting for some. 3o you find it so'% %&ell,% Celli said, drawing the word out to gi!e herself time to compose her response. %;or women who are already ac/uainted with you, I can understand such a reaction. +o doubt they feel that you should be considering them on a personal le!el, since you should already be aware of their other /ualifications. In my case, howe!er, as we ha!e ne!er met and it is unlikely that you would be familiar with the contributions the (mbrea family is prepared to make to support its bid for the crown, an inter!iew of this kind makes perfect sense. I also accept the distinction that you are looking for a /ueen and not a wife.% %-ou think there is a distinction'% %>f course. The /ueen fulfills a political role, rather like the 4oyal &i0ard. The fact that this role includes pro!iding heirs to the throne implies only that there must be an intimate relationship between her and the king, not necessarily a romantic one.% Celli shifted in her seat as she spoke. .!en to herself, she sounded cold-hearted. %I belie!e the king and /ueen should respect and care for each other, but a lo!ing relationship isn#t absolutely necessary.% (t that moment, the door opened and lunch arri!ed. +either of them spoke while the ser!ants set the table and laid out the dishes. 6ut when they were alone

again, .douard regarded her thoughtfully. %1ome people might say you are espousing that position because you know it is one I will find palatable.% Celli bit her lip. There was some truth in that. &hen her mother had first put forward to the senior members of the family the idea of ha!ing someone !ie for .douard#s hand, they had discussed the fact of .douard#s e5isting relationship with ieran, and what effect it might ha!e on a candidate#s prospects. 6ut their o!erarching goal of restoring the family name far outweighed all other considerations, so acknowledging ieran as part of the package was deemed acceptable. %&e (mbreas ha!e spent centuries li!ing on the fringes of society,% she said /uietly. %&e will do what we must to escape this e5ile. (nd frankly, I think li!ing beside my husband#s mistress would be a far smaller burden than the years of animosity I would likely ha!e to endure li!ing at court.% .douard suddenly grinned. %The lesser of two e!ils, eh'% he chuckled. $e reached for the pitcher the ser!ants had brought with the meal and filled her goblet with water. %I#m afraid I don#t drink wine with lunch,% he said. %I prefer to keep my head clear when I#m working.% %&ater is fine, you ma"esty.% Celli lifted the goblet to her lips. The fluid was pleasantly cool. %1o you think of lightly. ieran as my mistress,% .douard said

%In a sense,% Celli replied, her lips twitching as a highly inappropriate image of ieran in a dress crossed her mind. %&ith the benefit that there can be no illegitimate children to challenge the right of mine for the throne.% %( !ery practical !iewpoint.% %Turning a situation to one#s ad!antage is the essence of politics, is it not'% %Indeed it is.% .douard saluted her with his goblet. %1o tell me what you know of the political situation in &hite 1hores. 1ince you don#t li!e here, I am curious to hear your !iews.% %&ell, let me see...% Celli picked up her fork as she considered where to begin. There were a lot of topics she could bring up, but she wasn#t sure what would be of the most interest to .douard. %There ha!e been a lot of interesting changes since the end of the &i0ard :prising. ;or e5ample...% 1he began to talk about

business en!ironment changes that had occurred because of the shifts in influence at court. 6usiness was really the only interaction her family had with other noble families, but since business was dri!en by wealth, or the lack of it, and wealth was often go!erned by political influence at court, the (mbreas always kept an eye on political trends to anticipate business opportunities. (t first, .douard "ust let her talk, but then he began to inter"ect insightful comments and astute /uestions as time wore on. 6y the end of the luncheon, Celli was talked out and .douard was wearing a satisfied e5pression. %This has been a !ery informati!e afternoon, 7iss (mbrea,% .douard said. %I can#t remember the last time I had such an interesting con!ersation.% %Thank you, your ma"esty.% .douard rose and held out his hand. Celli took it and also rose to her feet. %I would appreciate it if you would remain at court for the time being, 7iss (mbrea,% he said as he escorted her to the door. %>f course, your ma"esty. I would be glad to.% %,ery good.% .douard opened the door and inclined his head. %2ood day, 7iss (mbrea.% %2ood day, your ma"esty.% >utside, people were waiting in the antechamber, so Celli immediately smoothed all e5pression from her face. 6ut inside, her heart was pounding in her chest. It seemed as if the inter!iew had gone !ery well. The small hope she had harbored since meeting )ord ieran suddenly began to blossom. 7aybe she had a chance. 7aybe her family would finally escape their social prison. Chapter A: Another Graduation To ieran, it was "ust a sign of how accepted his relationship with .douard had become that .douard#s ser!ants would simply enter in the morning while the two of them were still in bed. That fact had prompted one of .douard#s two childhood body ser!ants, )andon, to finally retire. 6ut the other, =ustus, still attended .douard as the head of his personal contingent of ser!ants. 1o e!ery morning for the past three and a half years or so, half a do0en ser!ants, led by =ustus, would enter the bedroom and get to work9 opening the drapes, straightening up, collecting yesterday#s clothes and generally fussing about. ieran recogni0ed that ser!ants liked to fuss, so he accepted it with good grace. .douard merely tolerated

it. (s a former in!alid, he still re!eled in the idea of being able to do things for himself, e!en with a fulltime staff whose goal was to do e!erything for him. 1o .douard rolled o!er with a groan and co!ered his head with the blankets when the drapes were thrown open, flooding the room with light. ieran sat up, running his fingers through his hair. It was getting too long again. $e needed to cut it. %2ood morning, =ustus.% %2ood morning, )ord ieran.% =ustus had ieran#s robes draped o!er his arm. %I took the liberty of cleaning and pressing your robes for graduation today. I#!e also ordered a carriage. &ill you be taking the ferry or should I send word to prepare the yacht'% %I#ll take the ferry.% %,ery good.% =ustus turned his attention to .douard. %-our ma"esty, you ha!e a breakfast meeting this morning with the ;isherman#s 2uild. -our bath is ready.% ieran had to suppress a chuckle. =ustus and 2raelin both got a little bossy when it came to managing .douard#s schedule. %>h, fine*% .douard grumbled. $e sho!ed the blankets down and swung his legs out of bed. ( waiting ser!ant immediately held out his dressing gown. =ustus merely lifted an eyebrow as .douard stepped out of bed completely unclothed and into the waiting gown. ieran was still a little uncomfortable about getting out of bed naked with people in the room, but it had ne!er bothered .douard. %3o you know if 7oret0 is up' I want him to attend this meeting as well.% %I belie!e he is, sire.% %2ood.% .douard turned to ieran. %I assume you#ll be going to the graduation ban/uet.% %-es, but I should still be back tonight. 3i!wall told me that they will run a night ferry because so many nobles from &hite 1hores are coming o!er for graduation this year. They don#t ha!e space to accommodate them all so they want to send as many back home as possible when the ban/uet ends.% .douard nodded. %7akes sense. &ell, ha!e a good time and gi!e all the new royal wi0ards my congratulations for their achie!ement.% %I will.%

.douard went into the bathing chamber and ieran reached for his dressing gown draped across the foot of the bed, but a pretty young maid picked it up before he could touch it. 1he held it out for him, "ust high enough so that she could watch him putting his arms in without being able to see his full nakedness. %&ould you like breakfast before you lea!e, )ord ieran'% =ustus asked. %=ust some toast, I think,% ieran replied. %I won#t ha!e that much time after my bath.% There was only room for one bathtub in the bathing chamber, so ieran usually bathed after .douard was finished. %,ery well, my lord. I#ll ha!e someone bring it right away so you can eat while you#re waiting.% %Thank you.% ieran ate his toast, with butter and "am, in the sitting room while he waited. It was a beautiful day and he stared out the window, thinking about the day ahead. $e and 7oret0 took turns going to graduation because they had agreed that one of them should always be where .douard was. This year it was ieran#s turn and he was looking forward to it. +ot only did it gi!e him a chance to spend time with Tank, but this year it also meant he could gi!e 3i!wall his best regards for her upcoming retirement. It was hard to imagine what the &i0ards $all would be like without 3i!wall managing the trainees. 6ut as far a he knew, she was planning to stay on 6right Isle, so perhaps it wouldn#t feel all that different. (fter his bath, ieran dressed in thin linen trousers and a slee!eless shirt before putting on his robes. The robes could get pretty hot in the sun, e!en if he untied the belt and let them hang open, so lightweight clothing underneath was essential. The carriage =ustus had ordered for him was waiting in the courtyard, so ieran made it down to the docks in good time. The morning ferry rocked slightly at the dock, its wide hull smoothing out the motion of the wa!es. %2ood morning, )ord ieran,% the captain greeted him as he walked up the gangway. %2ood morning, Captain +eeda. .5pecting a full load today'% %(ye, my lord.% Captain +eeda nodded. %The cabins are already getting crowded.% +ormally, the captain would not ha!e said such a thing to a wi0ard, but he

knew ieran would stay on deck to encourage others to use the cabins if there were a lot of passengers. ieran inclined his head. %I think I#ll stay on deck, then. It looks like a beautiful morning for a crossing.% %It should be. &ould you like a cup of tea'% %-es, please.% %,ery good. I#ll ha!e one sent around.% %Thank you.% ieran crossed to the outer rail and leaned o!er to look at the water. 4efuse floated on top of the water, lapping against the hull. There was more than ieran e!er remembered seeing before, which was the sub"ect of .douard#s morning meeting. $e was proposing to le!y a ta5 against fishermen to pay a staff of workers to keep the water clean, but the ;isherman#s 2uild thought it should not "ust be the responsibility of fishermen to pay it. They thought e!eryone who used the waterfront should pay. ieran wasn#t sure which way was right, but he agreed with .douard that something needed to be done before it got any worse. Pre!ailing currents tended to bring anything floating on the lake to shore in the !icinity of the city, so it was only going to get worse as the city#s population, and the associated commerce, continued to grow. 6ut once the ferry sailed out onto the lake, the pristine blue waters were clean and beautiful. ieran leaned on the rail and sipped his tea, sa!oring the fresh crispness of the air. >n a day like this, the crossing to 6right Isle felt too short. In seemingly no time at all, the ferry was putting into its berth at )ands .nd and people began crowding the rail, preparing to disembark. ieran waited until the bulk of them had made their way down the gangway before "oining the press. 6ut today, at least, no one seemed to mind being in close pro5imity to a wi0ard. These were all families of future wi0ards after all, so for now they had shed their normal antipathy for the company of wi0ards. (t the bottom of the gangway, se!eral local dignitaries from )ands .nd waited to greet the arri!als and direct them toward the &i0ards $all. %)ord ieran*% a middle-aged woman with plump cheeks greeted him when he stepped onto the dock. %&elcome back. &e ha!en#t seen you on 6right Isle for some time.%

%7y duties keep me busy, .lder,% ieran replied. $e couldn#t remember her name, so he resorted to the relati!e safety of her title. %I trust the community is doing well'% %,ery well, my lord,% she replied with a cheerful smile. %I#m glad to hear it.% ieran inclined his head to end the con!ersation and continued up the dock into town. )ands .nd was always festi!ely decorated for graduation and this year was no e5ception. 6untings with streamers graced most of the windows and balconies facing the main road though town, and bunches of fresh flowers were tied to the lamp posts. The &i0ards $all was also decorated. 1ince he was early, ieran decided to look for Tank. $e was not surprised to find the young instructor holed up in his lab, hunched o!er one of his cluttered workbenches with half a do0en students watching him. %+ow,% Tank was saying, %when the li/uid clarifies, you must immediately utter the spell or the formula won#t stabili0e.% $e stirred his concoction !igorously as he spoke. Then he leaned o!er and whispered something o!er the beaker. The li/uid in the beaker, which had "ust become clear, immediately turned a bright, crystalline blue. Tank sat back. %There.% .5cited e5clamations echoed from the students. %That#s a pretty complicated way to make dye, Professor,% ieran said. % ieran*% Tank e5claimed. $e bounced o!er and caught ieran by the hand. %-ou can#t get the colors the spell makes with natural products. This spell could get a wi0ard a "ob at a wea!ers shop.% %3i!wall is still focused on full employment for wi0ards after graduation'% %-up,% Tank nodded. %It#s one of her highest priorities. 1he and 2a!ilan decided we needed to do more for graduates. It#s been pretty successful so far.% $e turned back to his students. %That will be all for today. If you#re helping with graduation, you should go tend to your duties now.% %-es, Professor*% the students chorused and they filed out, chattering e5citedly. ieran climbed onto a stool. %1o how does it feel to be the youngest professor in the history of the &i0ards $all'%

Tank grinned. %Pretty good*% $e plopped onto another stool. %6ut it#s only fair in recognition of my ongoing brilliance.% $is grin widened. ieran shook his head and laughed. %7odesty is apparently not a consideration.% Tank laughed, too. %$onestly, I think they saddled me with the title in the hope that I#d take on a bigger class load.% %3id you'% %-es. 6ut it didn#t stop me from e5perimenting.% Tank leaned o!er and picked up his beaker of blue dye. %Things like this ha!e such practical !alue. It was you who made me start looking at magic from a more practical perspecti!e and now the ideas "ust keep popping into my head.% %1o it#s all my fault.% %-up*% They both laughed. It was good to sit and talk with Tank. $e was the only person other than .douard around whom ieran felt like he could be completely himself. Tank eyed him for a moment and cleared his throat. %1o, how is the search for a /ueen going'% %Pretty well,% ieran replied with a shrug. %I think .douard will pick someone before the end of summer.% %That soon'% %There isn#t much point in putting it off.% Tank swirled his dye. %3o you ha!e a preference'% %(ctually, I do.% %4eally'% Tank seemed surprised. %&ho'% %Celli (mbrea.% %(n (mbrea'*% Tank#s surprise turned to a look of faint shock. %They really did send a daughter to court'% %-es. 1he is by far the most intelligent of the candidates I#!e met and she told me she doesn#t want to interfere with my relationship with .douard.% ieran studied Tank#s face. %I know it sounds like selfinterest, but I am his bodyguard. I ha!e to stay close to him and I know myself well enough to recogni0e that I can no longer be close to him without wanting to be his lo!er. (nd he has told me that he has no intention of ending our relationship, so a woman who is not willing to accept that will only cause problems.%

Tank nodded. %That makes sense.% $e slid off his stool. %3id you eat yet'% %=ust toast.% %)et#s go to the dining hall, then. They#re ser!ing brunch today because of all the !isitors.% %2ood. I#m hungry.% They walked to the dining hall, chatting about the students who were about to graduate. Tank was dismayed by the small number who had made royal wi0ard this year. The following class looked like it would turn out better, so it wasn#t a trend, but the numbers were still troubling. It meant more students than e!er would ha!e to be placed by the $all. &hen they arri!ed, the dining room was full of people en"oying a late breakfast, segregated by tables into groups of wi0ards and non-wi0ards. Tank and ieran found space at a table occupied by se!eral other instructors and helped themsel!es to the ser!ing dishes that were sitting at the center. %1o it#s your turn this year, eh, )ord ieran'% a woman instructor with fu00y dark hair and !ery brown skin greeted him. %-es, )ady 7ira,% ieran replied. )ady 7ira was a relati!ely new instructor, ha!ing started during ieran#s final year. 1ince she primarily instructed second year students, he had not had any classes with her. %)ord 7oret0 regrets missing )ady 3i!wall#s retirement dinner, but duty comes first.% %The rank of 4oyal &i0ard carries hea!y obligations,% 7ira agreed. They continued making idle small talk, with other wi0ards periodically "oining the con!ersation. The une!entful years since the &i0ard :prising had mellowed the attitudes of many wi0ards towards ieran. $e was no longer !iewed as a potential rogue. In fact, many wi0ards who had ne!er e5perienced his power firsthand did not really seem to belie!e he was as powerful as e!eryone said. In truth, ieran was glad about that. $e preferred it that no one recogni0ed he had the power to destroy &hite 1hores. $e would much sooner put up with gossip about his and .douard#s pri!ate life than speculation on "ust how much damage he could do. (fter brunch, Tank had to prepare for graduation because he had been drafted to help hand out robes. 1o ieran wandered into the garden alone, looking for

a /uiet spot to sit until the ceremony started at midday. %.n"oying a little solitude, ieran'% 3i!wall#s !oice was warm with affection. 1he was seated on a bench "ust ahead of him on the path, her cane leaning against the seat beside her. 1he mo!ed it to the other side. %&ill you "oin me'% %Certainly.% ieran settled on the bench beside her. %$ow are you doing, my lady' )ooking forward to retirement'% %To be honest,% 3i!wall wrinkled her nose, %I#d work another ten years if not for my failing knees. 6ut I "ust can#t get around like I used to.% %The healers can#t do anything'% 1he shook her head, a look of faint regret on her face. %They tried, but I am "ust getting too old. $ealing can only do so much. It cannot restore flesh and bone where it no longer e5ists.% %That#s unfortunate.% %Indeed.% 1he patted his knee. %6ut I#ll be fine. I#ll "ust hole up in a nice little office somewhere and cause trouble for my successor. $ow are you and .douard getting on' This /ueen business isn#t coming between you, is it'% %+o.% ieran shook his head. %I don#t think our relationship will change !ery much.% %>h'% 3i!wall lifted an eyebrow at him. %Is he planning to choose someone who is compatible with you'% %$e#s planning to choose someone who will make a good /ueen. There is more to that role than people seem to remember.% ieran shrugged and smiled slightly. %6ut it will help if she is also someone who gets along with me. >nce she becomes .douard#s wife, it will become part of my duty to guard her and any children she bears.% %(nd he#s still planning to sleep with you,% 3i!wall stated matter-of-factly. %-es.% :nder 3i!wall#s unflinching ga0e, ieran had to resist the urge to duck his head. (fter all this time, she could still make him feel like an errant schoolboy. %>ur feelings for each other are !ery strong,% he added. %I gathered that,% 3i!wall replied with a dry chuckle. %6ut I don#t presume to "udge either of you. .douard

has not had an easy life and you keep him centered in a way that benefits this entire kingdom. I "ust hope this marriage works out the way you both seem to hope it will.% 3i!wall clasped her cane and ieran thought she was going to get up. 6ut instead, she tapped the tip on the ground and spoke again. % ieran, there is something I would like you to bring to 7oret0#s attention when you get back to the palace.% %&hat is it, my lady'% %&i0ards ha!e been disappearing.% %&hat'*% 3i!wall frowned. %<uite a few wi0ards from the last se!eral classes ha!e disappeared without a trace. It#s always lower-ranking wi0ards, so you wouldn#t e5pect them to ha!e burned themsel!es out. &e only disco!ered it because .stan 7urdock was following up on a wi0ard he placed recently. The young man ne!er showed up at his destination and .stan could ne!er find any trace of what happened to him. 1o .stan asked around and disco!ered that se!eral other wi0ards he had placed ne!er arri!ed.% 1he turned worried eyes on ieran. %1o we did some more checking. >!er the past ten years or so, do0ens of low-ranking wi0ards ha!e simply !anished*% %(re you sure they ha!en#t "ust tra!eled away'% %It#s possible,% 3i!wall said worriedly. %6ut now that we know how difficult it is for low-ranking wi0ards to find work, I don#t belie!e someone we#!e placed into a "ob would simply abandon it in fa!or of looking for his or her own employment elsewhere.% ieran chewed on his lower lip as he thought. 3i!wall was right. It was still /uite difficult for non-royal wi0ards to find gainful employment that paid a decent wage. They would not pass up a good "ob. %I#ll let 7oret0 now as soon as I get back. $e may want to talk to you or .stan.% 3i!wall nodded. %Probably. I#ll send .stan o!er to see him after graduation.% %2ood.% ieran looked up at the sky, estimating the time. %&e should probably head o!er to the courtyard now. I want to get a good seat.% 3i!wall smiled. %-ou#re the king#s representati!e. -ou get to sit on the stage.%

ieran swallowed. %&here e!eryone can see me' -ou ne!er made me do that before.% %There#s a first time for e!erything.% 3i!wall grasped her cane firmly and pushed to her feet. %)et me lean on your arm, please.% ieran offered her his arm and they proceeded slowly down the path in the direction of the courtyard. 6la0ing under the open sky with nothing to hinder the sunlight streaming down, the flagstone courtyard should ha!e been broiling hot. 6ut in fact, the temperature was /uite pleasant. The first time ieran had felt this spell, he had thought it was weather manipulation. 6ut later he had learned that it was much simpler than that. ;ans placed strategically around the courtyard kept a continuous stream of air mo!ing across blocks of ice, blowing cool air into the open space of the courtyard. 7agic turned the fans and kept the ice fro0en, but otherwise, the principle was simple science and not something that would mess up 6right Isle#s weather patterns. The courtyard was starting to fill up as midday neared, the families of the graduating students settling onto the wooden benches lined up in neat rows facing the stage. ieran stepped up on the stage a little selfconsciously. Pretty much e!eryone in &hite 1hores knew who he was, but people from other parts of the kingdom did not immediately recogni0e him on sight, so there was some pointing and whispering when he appeared. $e sat down /uickly ne5t to Tank and sighed. %I don#t know why 3i!wall made me sit up here.% %-ou#re the king#s representati!e,% Tank replied. ieran stared at him suspiciously. %1o she said. -ou could ha!e warned me.% %(nd ha!e you try to sneak off the island' +ot a chance.% Tank#s grin was infectious. ieran couldn#t stay annoyed. $e smiled back. %7aybe I#ll make 7oret0 attend graduation from now on.% Tank "ust smiled. &hen the ceremony started, ieran paid close attention. The lowest-ranking wi0ards always recei!ed their robes first, so he studied the young men and women as they came up on stage to recei!e their plain gray wi0ard#s robes. &i0ards !aried widely in their powers and abilities. 1ome of these who made it up onto the stage were probably no more skilled than

students who had washed out o!er the years9 they had simply perse!ered until they reached this point. )ooking at their e5cited, proud faces, he could not imagine that any of these new wi0ards would abandon their first post. They were proud of their accomplishment. They had not yet had to face the distrust of the regular populace for anyone in wi0ard#s robes. $e could understand 3i!wall#s concern. &hate!er was causing young wi0ards to !anish could not be good. -o-o-o-o-o-o-o(fter eating breakfast alone, Celli decided she needed to go out. If it was truly her intention to become /ueen here, she needed to face the nobility and deal with their hostility. 6ut before stepping out, she e5amined her appearance carefully to ensure that there was nothing for which she could be faulted. The dress she wore was fairly simple, but the material was the finest hand-dyed silk. $er hair was brushed smooth and hung down her back in a dark fall, with a simple gold net studded with tiny blue and yellow sapphires holding it in place. 1he had a matching necklace adorning her throat. 1atisfied, she opened the door and her two muscular guards regarded her e5pectantly. %I would like to e5plore the palace,% she said. The taller of her two guards inclined his head. %,ery well, my lady.% Celli hesitated briefly. %I know I#m not popular,% she said, %but I cannot be intimidated by that. I know his ma"esty asked you to escort me, but it would be helpful if you did not interfere today.% %&e understand, my lady,% the guard said gra!ely and his companion nodded. %&e will not interfere unless you appear to be physically threatened.% %Thank you.% &ith that settled, Celli drew a deep breath and turned to face the hall. There were already people staring at her, their e5pressions ranging from open curiosity to deep animosity. &ithout a word, she mo!ed out. Ten paces down the hall, a middle-aged woman with hair "ust starting to streak with gray stepped into her path. %-ou ha!e some ner!e*% she e5claimed. %1urely you reali0e that no one wants to see you here*% Celli stopped and faced the woman s/uarely. %;orgi!e me, but I#m afraid I don#t know your name.%

The woman blinked in surprise. %I am )ady $ona 3ou!ram.% Celli inclined her head politely. %$ow do you do, )ady 3ou!ram'% %I am !ery well, thank you,% )ady 3ou!ram replied. $er confusion at being addressed so politely after her harsh opening was plain on her face. %6ut you ha!en#t answered my /uestion*% she continued a little more sharply. %-ou didn#t ask a /uestion, )ady 3ou!ram,% Celli said, but she smiled slightly. %$owe!er, I think I understand what you mean to say. I know my family#s reputation. 6ut please understand I am not here to antagoni0e anyone. &e belie!e our reputation is undeser!ed and I would like the opportunity to pro!e that.% %:ndeser!ed'*% )ady 3ou!ram e5claimed. %The &i0ard &ars were a long time ago,% Celli interrupted. %.!en if our family profited from the troubles of that time, centuries ha!e passed since then. 3o you honestly belie!e profits earned then would still be supporting us now'% %It#s because of all the land you bought*% %The bulk of the land in my family#s possession was owned by us before the southern f"ords were anne5ed by ing Timora.% )ady 3ou!ram#s mouth worked silently for se!eral seconds. %&e herd cattle,% Celli continued calmly. %It#s a !ery stable business.% 1ome of the anger faded from )ady 3ou!ram#s face. %(re you saying that your family#s fortune comes from beef'% %-es,% Celli shrugged. %&e#!e been selling beef in &hite 1hores since before the &i0ard &ars and there are more people in the city now than e!er.% &hen the woman said nothing, Celli continued. %)ady 3ou!ram, there is more to me and my family than the stories you#!e heard about the past.% %1o you say*% another woman interrupted. $er thin face was pinched and angry. %6ut would there be so many stories if there was not some truth in them'% %It#s been eight hundred years, )ady...% Celli trailed off, waiting for the woman to fill in her name.

%4eene,% the woman said after a moment. %I am )ady 4eene.% %)ady 4eene,% Celli inclined her head at the introduction. %I would ne!er claim that there is no grain of truth in the many stories that ha!e been told about my family o!er the centuries, but were these alleged crimes so great that there can ne!er be any redemption or forgi!eness' ing .douard himself has recently shown us that punishment can be tempered with mercy.% )ady 4eene#s angry frown became doubtful. %-ou are seeking forgi!eness'% %(nd redemption,% Celli added. %&ell...% )ady 4eene shifted uncomfortably e5changed a look with )ady 3ou!ram. and

%&e are not unreasonable people,% )ady 3ou!ram finally said. %I might be willing to reconsider my position.% 1he hesitated slightly. %I operate a charity in the city pro!iding food to the needy. &ould your family be interested in supporting such a charity, 7iss (mbrea'% %,ery much so,% Celli replied promptly. %I would like to hear more about it. &ould you care to walk with me while I tour the palace'% %,ery well.% )ady 3ou!ram fell into step beside her and the two of them proceeded down the hall. (fter a moment, )ady 4eene and a few of the other ladies in the group "oined them. Celli kept her relie!ed smile hidden as they walked along, her two guards bringing up the rear. 6eing seen in the company of other ladies would certainly cause talk, but it would be the good kind of talk. (s she had felt after her inter!iew with ing .douard, Celli was !ery encouraged. >n only her first e5cursion in public, she had already managed to break the ice. Chapter B: Missing Wizards .stan 7urdock arri!ed at the palace early in the afternoon on the day after graduation. 3i!wall had told ieran !ia mind-speech that he was coming, so ieran waited in the courtyard for him. .stan tended to be a little too serious sometimes, but ieran /uite liked him. The slender new 3irector of Trainees was de!oted to the &i0ards $all and e5hibited genuine concern for the welfare of all wi0ards, especially those who did not earn a royal crest. &hen he stepped out of the hired carriage with a massi!e bundle of papers

stuffed under one arm, ieran immediately rushed forward to help him before the papers went flying in all directions. %7y satchel wasn#t big enough,% .stan e5plained apologetically as ieran relie!ed him of a stack of his pages. %3i!wall said you were checking the records going back ten years,% ieran replied, %but this seems like a lot more than that.% %&ell, I brought along e!erything,% .stan said. %I thought there might be a pattern in who has disappeared and who hasn#t that I might not be seeing.% %>h.% ieran led the way into the palace and through the halls to 7oret0#s office. The wide berth normally gi!en wi0ards was e5tremely helpful now, since the last thing ieran wanted was to ha!e his elbow bumped and drop e!erything. &hen they arri!ed at 7oret0#s door, he thumped it with his foot. %&e need a hand, 7oret0*% The door opened and 7oret0#s eyes widened in surprise. %&hat#s all this'*% %4esearch,% ieran replied with a smile. $e marched in and deposited his load on the desk. %Put it down here, .stan.% 7oret0 rolled his eyes in annoyance as his desk was /uickly buried beneath .stan#s papers. %I ha!e a work table.% ieran looked rather pointedly at the cluttered surface in /uestion and lifted his eyebrows. %It#s "ust a few books and papers*% %That#s what you say e!ery time I come in here and need to put something down,% ieran snorted. $e wa!ed a hand at .stan. %Pull up a chair, .stan, and e5plain what you#!e brought us.% %&ell,% .stan said as he sat down, %what I ha!e here are the records of e!ery low-ranking wi0ard who graduated from the academy in the last ten years. I#!e been trying to find some kind of pattern to the disappearances. 1o far I ha!en#t seen anything. The missing wi0ards are from all walks of life and include both men and women. The only thing they seem to ha!e in common is that they were not royal wi0ards.% 7oret0 reclaimed his chair behind the desk and picked up a page. %&hat about fre/uency'% he asked. %&ere

there more disappearances before you started placing wi0ards'% %+o,% .stan shook his head and frowned unhappily. %I think my problem is that I really ha!e no idea when some of these people actually !anished. I know they#re missing now, but I don#t know when contact was really lost. It could ha!e happened days after graduation or years later. ;or my recent graduates, I know that it was within the past year, but beyond that, it#s impossible to say.% ieran picked up a couple of the sheets and scanned them. .stan had made notations at the top of each page indicating if he had been able to locate the wi0ard or not, including whether or not the wi0ard was known to be dead. ( few had additional notations indicating a possible timeframe when the wi0ard was last seen. (s he /uickly skimmed o!er the pages, something caught his eye and made him go back to check sheets he had already re!iewed. %.stan, look here.% $e pointed at the page he was holding. %.!ery single one of the missing wi0ards graduated in the bottom twenty of his or her class. These people barely had enough power to light a candle. $a!e you considered that they might ha!e been murdered'% .stan swallowed. %I#!e thought of that,% he admitted uncomfortably. %6ut who would do such a thing' &i0ards are forbidden to harm each other and nonwi0ards fear us.% ieran drew a breath. %&i0ards are not supposed to harm each other,% he said, %but we#!e seen that this is not always the case.% 7oret0 nodded in agreement. %True enough. 6ut what would a wi0ard hope to gain by murdering low-ranking wi0ards like these' .!en Imbario shunned them when he was on the run and could ha!e used the help.% %-ou#re assuming that this presumed murderer is sane,% ieran replied gra!ely. 7oret0 sat back. %I would prefer not to "ump to the conclusion that we#re dealing with a madman,% he said. %There are many more reasonable e5planations for what happened to these wi0ards. If we are able to locate e!en one of them, it makes a reasonable e5planation more likely.% ieran inclined his head. %I agree. 1o then our focus should be on trying to find these people'% %I think so.%

%I ha!e tried to locate the wi0ards from last year#s class that went missing,% .stan said. %In their cases, I know where they were supposed to be and when they should ha!e arri!ed there. 6ut I ha!en#t been able to learn anything e5cept that none of them showed up at their destination.% %That means they went missing while en route,% ieran said. %1o we should send someone to retrace their paths and ask /uestions at e!ery stop along the way. People should remember seeing a tra!eling wi0ard. -ou should be able to narrow down the last place they were seen pretty closely.% .stan nodded. %That#s a good idea. I#ll hire some men to search, rather than send wi0ards, so people will more readily talk to them.% %2ood plan,% 7oret0 said. %If you don#t mind, I#d like to keep these papers for awhile and e5amine them in more detail.% %I would appreciate that,% .stan said with relief. %I cannot help but feel fresh eyes will see something mine ha!e missed.% $e stood up. %I know an agency here in &hite 1hores that has the sort of men I need. I#ll stop there on my way back to 6right Isle. Thank you so much for meeting with me. I feel better knowing you are looking into this with me.% $e held his hand out to 7oret0. %-ou#re welcome, .stan,% 7oret0 said, shaking .stan#s proffered hand. %I ha!e a duty to support the &i0ards $all as well as the crown. &e#ll get to the bottom of this.% .stan offered his hand to ieran and ieran stood up to shake it. $e walked .stan back to the door and saw him out. &hen the young wi0ard was gone, he turned to 7oret0. %$e is a !ery dedicated wi0ard.% %Indeed he is,% 7oret0 said. $e sat back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head. %I get the impression he thinks these wi0ards ha!e succumbed to foul play and doesn#t want to admit it.% %I get that impression also,% ieran replied. $e returned to his seat. %The thought of someone murdering wi0ards makes me !ery uncomfortable, too.% %)et#s hope that#s not what it is.% 7oret0 pushed his chair back so he could put his feet up on his desk, dislodging se!eral papers in the process. %&hile you#re here, may I ask you something'%

%>f course.% %(re you really prepared to see .douard get married'% ieran shifted uncomfortably and dropped his eyes. %I will be, when the time comes.% %7eaning you#re not ready now.% ieran shrugged slightly. %&hat do you e5pect' .douard is my lo!er. Thinking about him being in bed with someone else is hardly a pleasant thought.% %6ut you won#t do anything to pre!ent it'% %>f course not*% ieran stared at 7oret0 in surprise. %&hy would you e!en think such a thing'% %6ecause .douard is your lo!er and you#re a wi0ard. <uite frankly, it#s within your power to pre!ent it and there#s precious little I or anyone else could do about it.% ieran laughed softly. %Is that it' >nce again, e!eryone is holding their breath wondering if they can rely on my restraint'% %That#s not what I meant.% %-es, it is.% ieran lifted his chin and met 7oret0#s eyes. %I lo!e .douard more than anything in this world, 7oret0, and .douard lo!es me. 6ut he lo!es this kingdom, too, and he won#t do anything to harm it. (nd because he won#t, I won#t. &hat .douard does, he does in the ser!ice of this kingdom, and what I do, I do in the ser!ice of .douard. I will not interfere with his marriage. I will protect his wife and his children as I protect him, because that is my duty and it is what .douard e5pects of me. 6ut do not e5pect me to stop sharing his bed, because I won#t as long as he wants me there.% 7oret0 slowly nodded. %;air enough. I won#t /uestion you again. 6ut you understand, as the 4oyal &i0ard, I had to ask.% ieran smiled. %I understand.% $e stood up and wa!ed his hand at 7oret0#s desk. %&hy don#t you go through that mess first' I#ll ha!e a look at it after you and we can compare notes later.% %(ll right.% 7oret0 put his feet back on the floor and scooted closer to the desk. %I#ll let you know when I#m finished.% %,ery good.% ieran left 7oret0#s office and wandered back toward his own. .douard was still in his office, so for the moment, ieran had nothing to do.

%2ood afternoon, )ord

ieran.%

ieran turned around in surprise. Celli (mbrea was walking toward him with a warm smile on her face. 1he was wearing a lace net dotted with crystal beads around her long tresses, anchored in place by a sil!er chain wo!en into her hair. $er dress was an unadorned dark blue with a high collar and long slee!es. 1he had a belt of small sil!er disks around her waist. $er appearance was regal and ieran thought she looked like a /ueen. %2ood afternoon, 7iss (mbrea. It#s a pleasure to see you again.% %Thank you, )ord ieran.% 1he curtsied briefly. %I heard that you#!e been making a good impression,% ieran said. Celli smiled. %I hope so. I admit I#!e resorted to rather blatant bribery to get people to talk to me.% %4eally'% ieran blinked in surprise. %)ady 3ou!ram asked if I would assist in her charity work, meaning she wanted money.% Celli grinned. %I ha!e lots of money and she was !ery happy to recei!e my pledge of a generous donation. 1he introduced me to other ladies in her circle and I pledged to support se!eral more charitable causes.% %I would not call that bribery,% ieran said. %I would call it a "udicious use of a!ailable funds.% Celli laughed. %I like how you put that*% %6ut it#s ha!ing the desired effect, I trust.% %-es, it is.% Celli nodded happily. %I still recei!e more angry comments than kindly greetings, but the fact that I recei!e any kindly greetings at all is a step up. I am !ery pleased.% 1he gestured behind her. %-ou#ll notice I#!e !entured out without an escort.% %I did notice. I#m happy for you.% ieran glanced around. +ot surprisingly, they were being watched but no one seemed inclined to interrupt them. %&ould you like to !isit the waterfront' .douard will be in his office until dinnertime, so my afternoon is free.% %I#d lo!e to*% Celli e5claimed eagerly. %I wanted to !isit the lake when my uncle and I first arri!ed, but he didn#t think we had time for sightseeing.% %)et#s get a carriage, then, and I#ll show you around,% ieran said. They walked out to the courtyard together and ieran led the way o!er to the row of carriages-

for-hire, stopping at the one at the front of the line. %The ferry landing, please.% %,ery good, my lord.% The coachman held the door for them while ieran helped Celli into the carriage and climbed in after her. Celli looked out the window as they rolled through the city. %It#s so big*% she e5claimed. %I#!e always known &hite 1hores was large, but this is ama0ing* >h, look* It#s a marketplace*% ieran smiled as he listened to her talk. $e remembered how e5cited and ama0ed he#d been the first time he saw the city. $e was used to it now, so it was refreshing to be reminded of those early days of disco!ery. &hen they arri!ed at the docks, they walked slowly along the waterfront, absorbing the noise and energy. Celli was e5cited by e!erything and asked /uestions constantly. They ended up walking all the way down to the whar!es where noble families kept their yachts and he showed her the three royal yachts. 6ut by then it was getting late, so they hired another carriage to take them back to the palace, arri!ing "ust as the sun was sinking below the hori0on. %Thank you so much for a wonderful afternoon, )ord ieran,% Celli said. %I en"oyed myself !ery much.% %It was my pleasure, 7iss (mbrea. 3o you ha!e dinner plans for the e!ening'% %(s a matter of fact, I do,% she replied, her eyes gleaming. %)ady 3ou!ram in!ited me to dine with her and three other ladies to discuss possibly e5panding the soup kitchen she runs so she can ser!e more people. I am planning to offer to finance the e5pansion because it is such a worthy cause and I am eager to support it.% ieran smiled. %I think you are going to be more than a match for this court, my lady.% %I hope you#re right.% 1he inclined her head. %2ood e!ening, )ord ieran.% %2ood e!ening, 7iss (mbrea.% ieran returned to his rooms thinking about Celli. $e really liked her. 1he carried herself like a noblewoman, but her manner was neither pompous nor arrogant. 1he was "ust pleasant to be around. ieran knew that .douard had already returned to their rooms, so he was not surprised to see .douard#s guards there. &hen he entered, he found .douard seated at their dinner table, sipping a glass of wine.

.douard lifted an eyebrow at him. %-ou#re being accused of fa!oritism.% %7e'* &hat for'% %3idn#t you "ust spend the afternoon with Celli (mbrea'% %>h*% ieran stopped in his tracks. %I didn#t e!en think about that* I#m sorry, .douard. I ran into her in the hall and asked her if she wanted to see the waterfront. It was "ust a spur of the moment thing.% .douard smiled. %I#m sure it was, but you must reali0e that her competition doesn#t see it that way.% ieran ran his fingers through his hair. %I see it now*% $e sat down and took .douard#s glass, /uaffing half of its contents. %I#m still no good at politics, I#m afraid. It didn#t e!en occur to me.% %I take it you like her.% %,ery much,% ieran admitted. %1he#s one of the few noblewomen I#!e met that I can talk to like a normal person.% %I like her, too,% .douard said, %e!en though I#!e only met her once.% $e retrie!ed his wine from ieran and took another sip. %To be honest, I#m almost ready to make my decision now.% ieran bit his lip. %+ot because of me, I hope.% %+ot completely,% .douard said. %6ut none of the other women I#!e met so far has impressed me as much as she has, and the fact that you also like her makes her that much more attracti!e.% $e sighed. %6ut I can#t choose her right now, especially not after you "ust spent the day with her. I ha!e to finish the inter!iews, and then do a second round of inter!iews with the frontrunners before I make an announcement.% %6ut you#re going to pick Celli.% %I think so.% .douard studied his face. %&ill that be all right with you'% ieran thought about it before he answered. $e did like Celli, but did he like her well enough to share .douard with her' $e drew a breath. %I think,% he said slowly, %it would make me cra0y if it was anyone else. 6ut we were in lo!e for a long time before we became lo!ers, so as long as your heart still belongs to me, I think I can let go of your body for a little while.% .douard smiled. %)andon would be shocked to hear you finally admit that we were in lo!e all those years.%

ieran smiled back. %7ore like !indicated, I think.% %Perhaps.% .douard finished his wine. %I ordered grilled tomatoes with dinner tonight.% %-um*% %-ou should probably not spend any more time with Celli until after I make an announcement.% %I understand.% ieran got up and took .douard#s glass to the sideboard to refill it. $e filled a second glass for himself before returning to the table. %$ere#s to the future.% $e held out his glass. .douard clinked his gently against future.% -o-o-o-o-o-o-o.douard#s first appointment of the day was with emian 3obric. emian was about ten years older than .douard, but .douard ne!er thought of him that way, in part because he could not forget the way emian had broken down in tears and begged .douard to forgi!e him for his father#s betrayal the day after the elder )ord 3obric#s e5ecution. 1ince then, emian had worked diligently to rebuild the family#s fortune and reputation, but what he seemed to work the hardest at was getting .douard to appoint him to the senior council. $ad his father not betrayed the kingdom, emian would ha!e inherited his father#s place on the council, and losing that position seemed to bother him far more than the loss of wealth and prestige. &hen he entered the office, he offered .douard a respectful bow. %Thank you for seeing me, your ma"esty.% .douard wa!ed to a chair. %$a!e a seat, )ord 3obric. &hat can I do for you today'% emian took the offered seat, but his posture in the chair, stiffly upright with his feet flat on the floor and his hands resting on his knees, indicated he was /uite ner!ous. %&ell,% he began hesitantly, %I wanted to inform you that I ha!e become engaged.% %Congratulations,% .douard said, %but why are you telling me' +o one has been re/uired to get the king#s appro!al to marry for centuries.% %I know.% emian shifted uncomfortably in his seat. %6ut8% he hesitated and drew a deep breath. %7y betrothed is Caren &oolden. I feared that it would ieran#s. %To the

seem8 inappropriate that two families in!ol!ed in past, ah, misdeeds, should "oin.% %I see.% .douard folded his hands on his desk. %-ou needn#t fear that it will make me see you any differently, )ord 3obric. The "udgments against those persons in!ol!ed in the &i0ard :prising were final years ago.% %Thank you, your ma"esty*% emian e5claimed with relief. %&hen my pre!ious engagement was broken as a result of the stain my father cast on the family, I feared I would not be able to attract another lady. 6ut 7iss &oolden is in a similarly difficult position, so a union with her seemed like a sensible solution.% %,ery sensible,% .douard agreed. %I#m happy for you.% emian bit his lip and .douard had to stifle a sigh. %&as there something else'% %(s you may know, my family#s fortunes ha!e impro!ed considerably o!er the past four years.% %I#m aware of that.% %Therefore, ha!ing regained some of our old prestige and with me now ser!ing as patriarch of the family, I wondered if I might not be reinstated to our former position on the senior council.% %I had not planned to appoint anyone to the council in the near term, )ord 3obric.% %6ut why not, your ma"esty'% emian sat forward an5iously. %(lthough recent times ha!e been peaceful, that peace has led to an e5pansion of economic acti!ity. 1urely an additional !oice on the council is needed*% %I ha!e been managing,% .douard said patiently. emian opened his mouth to respond and .douard held up a hand to silence him. %Please, )ord 3obric* 3o not take this as an indication that you are still laboring under the burden of your father#s betrayal. That#s not it at all. I simply ha!e not felt the need for a larger council, that#s all. If that changes, I will certainly remember to consider your /ualifications.% emian looked like he wanted to protest some more, but instead he stood up and bowed. %,ery well, your ma"esty. If that is your decision.% .douard watched him lea!e and sighed noisily when the door closed behind him. %$ow many times am I going to ha!e to tell people that I don#t want anyone else on the senior council'*% he grumbled. It was

e5tremely annoying. 6ut he smoothed the annoyance off his face when the door opened to admit his ne5t appointment. $e would ha!e to do something about the !acant council seat e!entually, but it could wait until after the wedding. That was headache enough for the moment. Chapter C: Engagement The baking heat of late summer had set in when .douard started on the second round of inter!iews. It only took one day for people to figure out that#s what he was doing and it started a flurry of /uestions as they tried to find out who was on the list for a second inter!iew. Poor 2raelin became something of a fugiti!e, as e!eryone assumed he must know who had made the cut since he managed .douard#s schedule. 6ut .douard had not told anyone whom he planned to bring back. In truth, it didn#t really matter since he planned to select Celli, but he needed to make it look good or the subse/uent outcry would be horrendous. $e had chosen the daughters of ten prominent families, including Celli, to meet with again and he told 2raelin in the morning which one he wanted to see that afternoon. (fter fi!e days, the families of the women who had been inter!iewed a second time were an5iously comparing notes, trying to figure out what .douard was looking for in a future /ueen, while those who had not yet been selected tried desperately to find out if they were going to be included. .douard /uite deliberately did not meet with Celli first or last, e!en though no one knew how many women he planned to speak to a second time. $e scheduled her for the si5th day and when she arri!ed in his office, he could see the suppressed e5citement in her eyes. %Thank you for gi!ing me this opportunity to speak with you again,% she said when she was seated in one of the chairs in front of his desk. %In truth, this is "ust a formality,% .douard said. %I ha!e already made my decision, but politics dictate that I make it look like a protracted process.% %4eally'% Celli clasped her hands together ner!ously in her lap. %(m I permitted to ask who the fortunate lady will be'% .douard smiled. %>f course you may, but I won#t make you. It#s you.%

Celli blinked se!eral times and licked her lips as relief flooded her face. 1he /uickly bowed her head. %Thank you, your ma"esty* I#m not sure what to say.% %That hasn#t been a problem for you up until now,% .douard replied with a chuckle. 1he looked up in surprise at being teased. %-our forthrightness is one of the things I like about you, 7iss (mbrea. I do not want a /ueen who is too reticent to tell me what she#s thinking or worse still, hides things from me. -ou will be my co-ruler. I not only e5pect you to support and enforce my edicts, I e5pect you to tell me when I#m wrong. This is the relationship I ha!e with my 4oyal &i0ard and it#s the relationship I want with you.% Celli drew a deep breath and some of the tension left her. %I would like that, your ma"esty,% she said. %I plan to speak to four more women after this,% .douard continued, %but as I said, it is "ust a formality to appease the other families. I will not make the actual announcement until ne5t week, so you will need to keep this information to yourself until then.% %I understand. 3oes )ord ieran know'% .douard wondered why she was asking about ieran9 her e5pression was guarded. %-es. $owe!er, I ha!e told him not to speak to you for the time being to a!oid an appearance of fa!oritism.% %>h.% Celli bit her lip. %I thought perhaps he was a!oiding me because he was upset.% % ieran likes you !ery much, 7iss (mbrea. I had to specifically forbid him from spending time with you.% Celli#s guarded e5pression dissol!ed into a relie!ed smile. %I#m so glad to hear that* I en"oy )ord ieran#s company and I was concerned that the prospect of marriage between us had turned him against me.% %7iss (mbrea, ieran was the one who suggested I choose you as my /ueen.% %$e did'*% %-es. $is recommendation was not the sole deciding factor, but it did weigh into my decision. ieran#s peace of mind is important to me. $e is a large part of my life.% Celli nodded. %(nd he will become a large part of mine.% 1he clasped her hands together again, her face becoming troubled. %)ord ieran is a wi0ard,% she said, uncertainty in her tone. %Is he really as powerful as e!eryone says'%

%$e is the most powerful wi0ard in the kingdom,% .douard replied. %Probably the most powerful wi0ard in history.% %6ut people don#t seem to be afraid of him.% Celli spoke hesitantly and .douard wondered if she was worried about offending him. % ieran has earned their trust through his de!otion to me.% .douard lifted an eyebrow. %In fact, they#re far more likely to fear my wrath than his. $e is by nature a !ery gentle man. The only time he has e!er harmed anyone was in my defense. 6ut he understands his power better than anyone and that#s what makes him one of the safest wi0ards in the kingdom. $e knows he must always watch himself. I#m not sure other wi0ards pay as much attention to the affects of their power as he does.% Celli was slowly nodding as pu00led me a little because a!oid magic and wi0ards, uncomfortable around )ord seem like a wi0ard.% he spoke. %I see. It we (mbreas prefer to but I#!e ne!er been ieran. $e "ust doesn#t

.douard laughed. %That is part of his charm and shows the lingering traces of his upbringing. ieran was raised a ser!ant and he has ne!er completely gotten o!er that, despite li!ing at court for years and being ele!ated into the ranks of the nobility. (nyway, after I announce our engagement, ieran will assume the responsibility for safeguarding you. $e will most likely want to put a protection spell on you. &ill you be comfortable with that'% Celli shifted in her seat, sudden concern showing on her face. %( spell' Is that completely necessary'% %It is the best way to ensure your safety,% .douard said. %I doubt you would e!en be aware of it. ieran has guarded me with magic for years and I ha!e ne!er been able to detect the spells.% %If that is your wish, of course I will comply,% Celli said, but it was ob!ious she didn#t like the idea. %7iss (mbrea, we ha!e to assume that there will be a fairly negati!e reaction to your selection. (lthough I would like to think it couldn#t happen, we cannot discount the possibility that someone might simply try to eliminate you. ieran#s protection is the best way to ensure that doesn#t happen.% Celli swallowed. %>f course, your ma"esty. That makes sense.% 1he ga!e him an embarrassed smile. %>ur

antipathy for magic is ingrained in us at a fairly young age, I#m afraid. It may take me a little while to ad"ust.% % ieran has a !ery light touch, magically speaking,% .douard assured her.%I really don#t think you#ll notice.% %I hope so.% .douard glanced at the clock. %&ell, this inter!iew needs to last one hour so I spend the same amount of time with you that I do with all the others. &e ha!e /uite a bit of time left. Is there anything you would like to discuss'% %&ell,% Celli flushed slightly. %I assume you will continue to share your /uarters with )ord ieran, so where will I be li!ing'% %There is a two-bedroom suite right ne5t to mine that I thought would suit you, because the second bedroom could ser!e as a nursery. The sitting room is also /uite large, which should work well for entertaining ladies.% %That sounds !ery nice. Is it the suite where your parents li!ed'% %+o.% .douard made a face. %I couldn#t bring myself to use the room where my father slept. $e didn#t die there, but the bedroom has an outside door to the hallway and I ne!er liked that. I prefer ha!ing a bedroom that is accessed only through the sitting room. That is how your suite is set up. 6oth bedrooms are accessed through the sitting room.% %I prefer that also,% Celli said. %(fter our engagement is announced, I#ll send for my personal attendants and belongings. I only ha!e two maids. I assume they#ll recei!e rooms in the ser!ants# /uarters'% %-es. )ord irkly will handle that.% Celli pursed her lips. %It would be reasonable for me to go home to !isit my family one last time and fetch my things after the announcement, but I think it might be better if I didn#t lea!e court. -ou#re probably right that people will agitate against my selection and I want to be here to counter it. I#!e made a little progress with some of the ladies and I don#t want to lose what ground I#!e gained.% %1uch foresight only confirms for me that I#!e made the right choice,% .douard said with a smile. %Please don#t feel constrained from continuing to win friends while keeping our upcoming engagement a secret.

-ou#!e already told people that you are trying to redeem your family, so I don#t think it will make anyone suspicious.% %Thank you, your ma"esty. I was hoping you#d say that.% 1he tipped her head to the side and smiled. %I#m scheduled to spend the afternoon at )ady 3ou!ram#s soup kitchen tomorrow.% %That is a fortuitous relationship,% .douard said. %)ady 3ou!ram is !ery committed to her charities and she influences a lot of people. >nce she reali0es you are going to become /ueen and she already has your patronage, she will become one of your most !ocal ad!ocates.% %I didn#t reali0e that at the time I offered to support her charitable acti!ities,% Celli replied, %but once it became clear that many other ladies looked to her for guidance, you may belie!e I ha!e done my best to culti!ate the friendship. (re there any other nobles whose friendship you belie!e would benefit me'% .douard sat back and tapped his chin. %&ell, let me think...% They spent the rest of the hour discussing !arious lords and ladies, and their influence in the court. &hen time was up, .douard escorted her to the door. %Thank you for your time, 7iss (mbrea.% ( number of people were waiting in his antechamber and they stared openly when Celli emerged. Celli immediately smoothed her e5pression and walked sedately away, her posture gi!ing nothing away. .douard welcomed his ne5t appointment with an e/ually blank e5pression. $e did not intend to ha!e anyone find out what his plans were until the time came. $e had four more inter!iews to get through first. -o-o-o-o-o-o-oThe day after .douard completed the inter!iews, ieran holed up in his office. It was partly to spend time poring o!er the stacks of records from the &i0ards $all, but mostly it was to a!oid people. ;or ten straight days, .douard saw one woman a day. &hen he sent for no one on the ele!enth day, e!eryone immediately, and rightly, guessed that those ten women were the finalists for his hand9 which meant, of course, that the families of those women who were not awarded a second inter!iew instantly descended on the palace in dro!es to protest this in"ustice. (nd ieran was certain that more than a few

of them would decide that he somehow was to blame for the snub. 1o he hid, wi0ard or not. &hen it came to politics and power, nobles were often !ery /uick to forget their fear of royal wi0ards and remember only their distrust of them. 6ut he couldn#t /uite bring himself to put a repelling spell on his door, which ended up being a mistake. In the middle of the afternoon, someone pounded angrily on the door. %)ord ieran* I would like to ha!e a word with you*% ieran inwardly cringed. This was the last person he wanted to talk to. ;oolish as it was, whene!er he saw Curdan 7achura, ieran would feel a sudden, hot flash of agony in his back. 4eluctantly, he rose to open the door. %Is there something I can do for you, )ord 7achura'% he asked as politely as he could. %-es*% 7achura sho!ed into the room, forcing ieran to step back, and slammed the door. %I want to know what you said to sabotage my daughter#s chances with his ma"esty*% ieran pressed his lips together to keep from snapping angrily in response. In as smooth a tone as he could manage, he said, %I did not say anything to his ma"esty about your daughter. I prefer not to discuss your family at all.% 7achura#s already angry e5pression darkened e!en more. %Indeed' 1o you do still harbor some resentment regarding our past encounter'% %&hat do you think'% ieran snapped, his grip on his temper fraying. %-ou would ha!e murdered me* If the madrin had not been there, I would ha!e died. I might ha!e been nothing but a lowly ser!ant then, but you still did not ha!e the right to take my life*% %-ou defied me*% 7achura snapped back. %(t the time, I had e!ery right to cut you down* (nd you suffered no lasting harm because of it. Indeed, e!erything you ha!e now is because of me* 6ut you repay me by undermining 7ichia#s chance of becoming /ueen*% %7ichia undermined her own chances*% ieran growled. %1he is an empty-headed flirt whose only interest is shopping. 1he has none of the /ualifications re/uired of a /ueen.%

7achura#s eyes narrowed and his !oice turned to ice. %3o not think "ust because you are the king#s whore that you can insult my family and get away with it.% ieran#s anger suddenly boiled o!er and he slammed 7achura back against the door with a stasis spell, lifting him off his feet. %(nd you would do well to remember that I am more than "ust his lo!er*% $e glared at 7achura, slowly tightening the grip of his spell until 7achura#s eyes bulged out and his face started to turn purple. %If I wanted to sabotage your family, 7achura, I would not resort to pillow talk. I would only ha!e to mention how your daughter tried to slip .douard a lo!e potion.% $e dropped his spell and 7achura crashed to the floor, gasping for breath. %2et out of my office. &e ha!e nothing more to say to each other.% $e turned his back on 7achura and returned to his desk. $e did not watch as 7achura staggered to his feet and stumbled out the door. 6ut when he was gone, ieran wa!ed the door shut from where he was sitting and put his head in his hands. +ow he had no /ualms about putting a repelling spell on his door. $e did not want to see anyone else right then. -o-o-o%-ou#re /uiet tonight,% .douard said, stroking his fingers through ieran#s hair. $e lay beside ieran in their large bed, his head propped up on one hand. %I#m sorry,% ieran sighed. +ormally, being in bed with .douard washed away any bad feelings he might ha!e had, but tonight was an e5ception. The bitter memory of his confrontation with 7achura would not lea!e his mind. %I wasn#t going to say anything, but Curdan 7achura came to see me today. $e accused me of sabotaging 7ichia.% %I was afraid something like that might happen. &as he the only one'% %-es, because I put a repelling spell on my door after that.% %-ou didn#t*% ieran nodded guiltily. %$e made me lose my temper and I used magic against him.% $e looked into .douard#s eyes, e5pecting to see reproach there, but .douard#s e5pression was sympathetic. %3id you hurt him'% %+ot really, but I#m sure that#s not how he feels about it.%

%If he pushed you that far, he probably deser!ed it,% .douard said. %I know you, ieran. $arming someone is not in your nature.% %I wouldn#t be so sure about that.% ieran raised his hands and stared at them. %>ther men must use these to hurt someone in anger. I only ha!e to think about it. It scares me sometimes.% %That#s why I say it#s not in your nature,% .douard told him gently. %If it didn#t scare you, I would be worried.% 4efle5i!ely, ieran kissed .douard. %-ou always know what to say to make me feel better.% %It#s because I lo!e you.% ( shi!er of pleasure and e5citement ran down ieran#s spine. $earing .douard say those words ne!er failed to ease his mind and soothe his spirit. $e wrapped his arms around .douard and kissed him again, pulling the young king on top of him. .douard responded to his kiss, slipping his arms under ieran#s shoulders. They made lo!e until they had e5hausted each other, succumbing to ecstasy again and again. ( long time later, wrapped in .douard#s arms, ieran drifted into contented slumber, the bitter memories finally washed away by the warmth of .douard#s passion. -o-o-o-o-o-o-o.douard called a general assembly to announce his selection for /ueen because he knew the group setting would keep people from arguing as !ehemently as they might otherwise. $e scheduled the assembly for midmorning in the large audience hall and then arri!ed slightly late to make sure e!eryone got there ahead of him. $e entered the hall through the door in back of the dais, rather than coming in through the main doors, with 7oret0 and ieran on either side of him. It would ha!e caused talk if he had entered with ieran alone, e!en though ieran was his bodyguard, but ha!ing 7oret0 there as well reinforced the idea that this was a formal state occasion. ;or the same reason, .douard was also wearing the small gold circlet that ser!ed as his crown on those occasions when he wanted to remind e!eryone of his rank. 7oret0 was carrying a matching circlet on a small pillow. (s .douard took his seat, a hush fell. The room was packed with more than "ust the ten families whose daughters were still in contention. The families of e!ery woman he had considered were also there,

along with a large collection of the merely curious. Interestingly, 7ichia 7achura and her father were standing right in front as if she were still a candidate. (s his eyes slid o!er them, 7ichia smiled hopefully, but )ord 7achura wasn#t looking at him. $is eyes were fi5ed on ieran with an angry glare. .douard lifted his chin. %I called this assembly to announce that I am becoming engaged.% It was sort of a statement of the ob!ious, but it seemed like a good place to begin. %I ha!e !ery carefully considered the /ualifications of a number of !ery e5ceptional young ladies. I would like to thank e!eryone for being so patient with me during this difficult process. It was not easy, but I ha!e arri!ed at my decision. 7y betrothed, and the ne5t /ueen of &hite 1hores, is Celli (mbrea.% %&hat'*% .douard did not see who emitted the shocked e5clamation. 1urprisingly, it was not 7ichia. 1he "ust stood there with a stunned look on her face that mirrored the e5pressions on do0ens of other faces. $e stood up and held out his hand. %7iss (mbrea.% Celli came forward from where she had been standing by herself close to the dais. 1he hadn#t made a sound after the announcement and now she met his eyes calmly as she mounted the steps and took his hand. 1he turned to face the crowd and 7oret0 stepped up beside her to place the circlet he was holding on her head. There was a smattering of applause. .douard noted that it started with )ady 3ou!ram. %The wedding will be in one month,% .douard said. %In honor of the occasion, I will be hosting a regatta. 3etails will be posted this afternoon. Thank you.% 1till holding Celli#s hand, he turned to lea!e the dais. %-our ma"esty, wait*% someone called. .douard turned around %-es'% %(re you not at least going to tell us what led you to choose an (mbrea'% The anger and disgust behind the /uestion were plain. The speaker, a middle-aged gentleman that .douard did not immediately recogni0e, glared at him defiantly. %In fact,% .douard said, suppressing his irritation, %I owe you no e5planation at all and I e5pect you to recogni0e that, as king, I ha!e a better understanding of what constitutes a good /ueen than you do. 1o /uestioning 7iss (mbrea#s selection means you are /uestioning my "udgment. Is that your intention'%

The man shifted uncomfortably and some of the defiance melted from his face. %6ut the (mbreas are... not popular,% he sputtered. %1urely that would affect her ability to rule effecti!ely'% %I don#t recall popularity being a re/uirement for effecti!e go!ernance,% .douard remarked. %>r are you saying that it is only necessary to be obedient to one#s master if you like him'% $e kept his eyes fi5ed on the man#s face as he spoke, but he could see the reactions of the people around him. $is point was getting across. %>f... of course not, your ma"esty*% the man replied hastily. %I was merely e5pressing a concern.% $e bowed and backed up, trying to end the con!ersation. .douard let his eyes mo!e across the room. %3id anyone else ha!e a concern to e5press'% 3ead silence greeted his /uestion. %,ery well.% $e turned his back once again and this time they escaped through the door at the back of the dais without interference. %+ow I understand why you said they fear you more than )ord ieran,% Celli murmured. %-ou e!en had me worried I might say something to offend you.% .douard chuckled. %6ut the difference is you are now allowed to offend me if you wish.% $e stopped and faced her. %That crown is a sign of your new rank,% he said. %This is my gift welcoming you into the 7ailar family.% $e took a small bo5 from his pocket and opened it. Inside was a gold ring set with a large diamond surrounded by four small blue sapphires. Celli#s eyes opened wide. %It#s lo!ely*% .douard took the ring from the bo5 and put the bo5 back in his pocket so he could take her left hand in his. %This ring was my mother#s.% $e slipped it onto her third finger. %&e are now engaged.% %Thank you, your ma"esty,% Celli whispered. 1he held her hand out and studied the ring appreciati!ely. %-ou should call me .douard now, Celli,% .douard chuckled. Celli blushed, but her answering laugh was warm. %>f course, .douard.% %(nd you should call me ieran,% ieran added. $e kissed her on the cheek. %The title "ust makes me uncomfortable. Congratulations.% %Thank you.%

7oret0 held out his hand. %)et me offer you my congratulations as well, your highness.% %Thank you, )ord 7oret0.% .douard noticed the slight stiffening in Celli#s manner as she addressed 7oret0. (pparently, her discomfort with wi0ards was in play with him, which seemed odd since he and ieran were dressed almost identically. % ieran, will you show Celli her new accommodations' I#m going to ha!e to spend the rest of the day in my office. I can already imagine the line that#s forming.% ieran smiled. %&hy not "ust a!oid them for today'% %6elie!e me, I#!e considered it,% .douard replied, rolling his eyes. %6ut then it would "ust be worse tomorrow. &hy don#t you come with me, 7oret0' 7aybe ha!ing a wi0ard there will inhibit them.% %-ou wish*% 7oret0 chuckled, but he fell into step with .douard anyway. %The three of us will ha!e dinner together tonight,% .douard called o!er his shoulder as he walked away. %I#ll order it,% ieran replied. $e wa!ed goodbye as he and Celli headed in the other direction. .douard hea!ed a sigh. %I#m already "ealous,% he grumbled. %Celli#s going to get to spend more time with ieran than I do.% %-ou#re not worried about what people will think of them spending a lot of time together'% %+o,% .douard shook his head. % ieran is only interested in me and e!eryone knows it.% $e fell silent, thinking about his reaction. $e knew it was childish, but that didn#t stop him from feeling en!ious, and it troubled him. $ow was he supposed to bed Celli if he was "ealous of the friendship between her and ieran' Chapter D: Smooth Sailing? 3octor 1efrin was planning to retire and he had already presented his replacement to .douard for his appro!al, a soft-spoken but dedicated young woman named 7aura >lgin who had worked for ten years in the 4oyal $ospital. 6ut that didn#t seem to stop the doctor from meddling in palace affairs. 1o ieran was not surprised when 1efrin appeared at his office door a few days after the engagement announcement. %)ord ieran, pri!ately'% do you ha!e a moment to talk

%>f course, 3octor. Please come in.% 1efrin came in and closed the door before settling into the chair in front of ieran#s small desk hea!ily. %It doesn#t seem right that the hot weather should bother my "oints like this,% he grumbled. %That does seem uncommon,% ieran replied lightly. %&hat did you want to talk about'% $e asked e!en though he was pretty sure he knew what the doctor wanted to discuss. It had to be about .douard. %&hen you and .douard became in!ol!ed, we all assumed it would be a passing thing,% 1efrin began without preamble. %6ut I gather from the housing arrangements for 7iss (mbrea that .douard intends to keep sleeping with you.% ieran nodded. %&ell, then...% 1efrin sat back and tapped his fingers on the arms of his chair. %(ssuming you want to minimi0e the amount of time the two of you must be apart, you need to stop sleeping with him at least a week before the wedding.% %I beg your pardon'% %I#m not a prude, )ord ieran. I know you and .douard are intimate on a regular basis, which means you are wasting a lot of his seed. It takes time for a man to accumulate a !iable /uantity9 at least a few days. If you want his ma"esty#s time with his wife to be effecti!e, he needs to be as potent as possible.% ( deep red blush slowly spread o!er ieran#s cheeks as 1efrin spoke. $e would ne!er ha!e imagined that someone could talk so clinically about his se5ual relationship with .douard. %>f course, 3octor 1efrin,% he answered faintly. %If you think it#s important, I can certainly do that.% ieran felt his blush deepening. %$a!e you spoken to .douard'% %+o,% 1efrin snorted. %$e#ll "ust tell me to /uit interfering.% %:ndoubtedly.% to him.% %Thank you.% &hen 1efrin showed no sign of getting up, ieran changed the sub"ect. %$a!e you decided where you will retire yet, 3octor' I remember you mentioning that you were fond of the southern f"ords.% %I was thinking of spending a few months there,% 1efrin said, %but I was born and raised in &hite ieran managed a weak smile. %I#ll talk

1hores. I#m not sure I could mo!e away for good. 6esides, the 4oyal College of 7edicine has offered me an emeritus professorship. I#m considering accepting.% %That sounds like /uite an honor. -ou must be !ery proud.% %I am, although I ha!e to admit I#m not sure it#s deser!ed.% 1efrin scowled in annoyance. %I completely failed to detect that .douard was being poisoned as a child. In truth that failing should ha!e cost me my position. .douard was !ery generous not to blame me.% %>n the other hand, you ha!e since pioneered a number of techni/ues in combining secular medicine and magic which ad!anced the /uality of care for e!eryone.% %True.% 1efrin agreed with a nod. %That is in fact the chair I would be holding at the college. It#s a new position in recognition of the role magic can play in supporting secular medicine. I understand there was some opposition to the creation of the chair and my appointment. I look forward to a few li!ely discussions down the road.% ieran chuckled. %&ell, we will certainly miss you here, 3octor.% %I lea!e you in good hands. 7aura is an e5ceptional doctor. 1he is also trained as a midwife, which should come in handy soon, with any luck.% $e fi5ed a sharp eye on ieran. %If you do as you#re told.% ieran#s blush returned. %(s I said, I will speak to .douard.% %2ood.% 1efrin pushed to his feet and fanned himself with one hand. %Perhaps I will go sit in a cool bath. I wonder if the kitchen has any ice.% %Take this.% ieran fished around in his top desk drawer and pulled out a folded paper en!elope. $e tossed it to 1efrin. %1prinkle this in your bath water. It will cause a reaction that will lower the temperature. &ait until it stops bubbling before you get in, though, or it might lower the temperature of your blood.% 1efrin opened the en!elope and sniffed the contents. %Is this herbal or magic'% %6oth,% ieran replied. %7a 6ricker used to make it so she could soak her sore "oints on hot nights.% %If it can lower the temperature of the blood, could it be used for inflammation'%

%Possibly, but the temperature drop is pretty dramatic. It could be /uite dangerous.% %$m...% 1efrin wandered out, a thoughtful look on his face. This was usually what happened whene!er ieran ga!e 1efrin one of 7a 6ricker#s recipes. It was hard to belie!e that he hadn#t already used them all in 1efrin#s presence, but 7a 6ricker had left behind a lot of formulas. (fter the doctor was gone, ieran stared at nothing, thinking about 1efrin#s ad!ice. $e did want to minimi0e how long he and .douard had to sleep apart, but it hadn#t occurred to him that the separation would ha!e to be strictly maintained until after Celli got pregnant. $e wondered how long they would ha!e to wait. $e knew women could concei!e fairly /uickly, but it was ne!er guaranteed. $e sighed and leaned on the desk, his chin cupped in his hands. $e was not looking forward to this. %-ou look unhappy,% Celli said from the doorway. 1he was wearing her gold circlet, which .douard had recommended she do for the time being "ust to remind e!eryone of her impending rank. %-our highness,% ieran responded with a smile. $e sat up straighter and folded his hands in front of him. %I thought you were spending the day at the soup kitchen.% %I was there, but it got !ery hot and )ady 3ou!ram felt ill, so we decided to return.% Celli smiled sweetly. %(nd you promised to call me by my first name.% %In pri!ate,% open door. ieran pointed out. $e nodded at the still

Celli closed it and took the seat in front of his desk. %1o is something troubling you'% The gentle concern in her !oice touched him, but ieran could not imagine telling her about 3octor 1efrin#s ad!ice. %I was "ust thinking about the wedding.% %>h.% Celli looked down. %I imagine it must be !ery difficult for you to,% she hesitated, %think about .douard spending time with someone else.% %-es.% ieran didn#t elaborate. $e knew Celli understood the depth of his feelings for .douard. %:m, will you be putting a, uh, protection spell on me after the wedding'% Celli#s unhappiness with the idea

was plain in her !oice. %.douard said you would want to.% ieran smiled. %I already did.% %&hat'* &hen'% ieran laughed at the look of stunned surprise on her face. %I did it right after the engagement. 3o you remember I took you by the hand when I was showing you your room'% %I remember that, but I thought you were "ust being kind.% %I was,% ieran chuckled, %but I also used the opportunity to layer you with a couple of spells. .douard said magic makes you uncomfortable, so I purposely did it at a time when you would most likely be unaware of it.% %6ut we were talking*% Celli e5claimed. %I ne!er heard you casting a spell*% %7ost of the spells I use don#t re/uire me to speak,% ieran said. %I only ha!e to e5tend my will to cast them.% Celli flushed. %I feel so foolish*% %&hy'% %I#!e been dreading the moment when you would touch me with magic and it#s already happened* I had no idea it could be so unobtrusi!e*% 1he twisted her hands together. %Can other wi0ards do this' People could be putting spells on me and I would ha!e no idea*% %(ctually, not many wi0ards cast spells the way I do,% ieran said. %It#s one of the reasons why they used to accuse me of being a rogue. 6ut you needn#t worry about other people casting harmful spells on you. The protection spell I put on you is designed to pre!ent that. I#!e refined it to be fairly discriminating o!er the years so it won#t block useful spells, like medications and that sort of thing, but it will keep people from hurting you with magic.% %That#s a relief* 6ut you said you cast a couple of spells.% %-es, the other is a simple awareness spell. It tells me where you are and who is with you.% Celli frowned. %6ut "ust now you were surprised to see me.%

%That#s because I wasn#t thinking about you. The spell reacts to your emotional state. If you#re upset or frightened, it will force itself into my awareness. >therwise, I ha!e to think about you. I designed it that way so I could come to your aid /uickly if need be, without you feeling like I#m watching your e!ery mo!e.% %I see.% Celli#s brow wrinkled thoughtfully. %I assume you ha!e a similar spell on .douard.% %-es, but in his case I am always aware of him. (s king, he doesn#t get to ha!e any pri!acy from his bodyguard.% Celli blushed abruptly. %6ut, what about...% 1he trailed off, her cheeks flaming. %I#ll know he#s with you, Celli. 6ut that doesn#t mean I#ll know what he#s doing.% %>h, of course.% 1he pressed her %This is so awkward* 1ometimes to say. I am so happy to ha!e you, but whene!er I think about and .douard, I feel terrible.% fingertips to her lips. I ha!e no idea what become friends with coming between you

Celli#s discomfort incongruously made ieran suddenly feel much better. $e smiled warmly. %Celli, you aren#t coming between us. The lo!e .douard and I ha!e for each other goes far beyond the time we spend in bed. (s king and /ueen, you and .douard ha!e a duty to produce heirs to the throne which I fully support. I won#t lie and say that it doesn#t bother me because I am only human. I cannot help but feel dismayed when I think of .douard being with someone else. 6ut I am not insecure about his affection. 1o please don#t worry about hurting my feelings. &e all ha!e obligations to the crown which we must fulfill.% Celli dropped her hands into her lap. %Thank you, ieran,% she said gra!ely. %-ou are a great man and a wonderful friend.% ieran inclined his head to acknowledge the compliment. %I feel like eating something. 1hall we see if the kitchen has anything prepared'% %(ll right.% Celli stood up as ieran rose and they left his office together. %3oes .douard ha!e a dinner meeting tonight'% %+o. &ill you be able to "oin us'% +ow that she was .douard#s fiancEe, Celli recei!ed fre/uent lunch and dinner in!itations, so she was

seldom free to eat with them. %I was going to ha!e dinner with )ady 3ou!ram and a few other ladies, but since she is ill, I think it might be canceled. If it is, I#ll "oin you.% %2ood. &e can talk about the regatta. &e#ll ha!e to get you out on the water.% %I would like that. I "ust hope I don#t get seasick.% Celli looped her arm through his. %6ut I am ne!ertheless an5ious to try it. The lake is such a large part of e!eryone#s li!es here in &hite 1hores. I feel a little bit like I#m missing something.% %That will change.% $e patted her hand where it rested on his arm. %.douard#s not planning to participate in the race, but he was thinking of ha!ing a parade of yachts beforehand, which he would lead. &e can sail on the yacht with him.% %>h, that sounds like fun*% They entered the dining room and found a handful of other people there. ( ser!ing girl approached them and offered a /uick curtsey. %2ood day, )ord ieran, your highness. &ould you like tea and cakes'% %That#s perfect*% ieran smiled. %-es, please.% %Please ha!e a seat,% the girl replied. %I#ll be right back.% 1he hurried away and ieran led Celli to a table. %It seems decadent to be eating in the middle of the afternoon like this,% Celli said. %3oes the kitchen prepare food all day long'% %Pretty much,% ieran said. %6ut they mostly "ust ser!e snacks during the off hours.% The ser!ing girl returned with a tray carrying a pot of tea, two cups, plates, utensils, napkins and a plate of si5 palm-si0e cakes. %The cakes are lemon-raspberry with !anilla frosting today,% she said as she transferred e!erything from her tray to the table. %Please en"oy.% 1he curtsied again and hurried away to wait on a group of ladies who had "ust entered. ieran took a cake and put it on the plate in front of him. %The cook where I grew up called these cupcakes. 1he would make them as a special treat for us with lefto!er batter whene!er she made a cake for our master. It was a huge lu5ury if there were enough for each of us to ha!e an entire cupcake to oursel!es. It still gi!es me a warm feeling whene!er I eat one.%

%-ou always speak so happily of your years as a ser!ant,% Celli said as she poured the tea. %I thought the li!es of ser!ants were more difficult.% %7y life wasn#t easy,% ieran said. %6ut it was the only life I knew back then. >ur master had no children, so I ne!er saw anyone my age li!ing an easier life than mine. The only children I knew were ser!ants like me.% %.douard said you were an orphan.% %>r abandoned,% ieran added matter-of-factly. %I was found on )ord Inchor#s estate as a baby and e!eryone assumed my parents abandoned me because they couldn#t care for me.% %-ou ne!er found out who they were'% %+o, but it didn#t matter. I had a home and duties, and that was enough. I#!e always been !ery grateful to )ord Inchor for taking me in.% %-our life has been an ama0ing "ourney. 7y little "ourney to &hite 1hores seems small in comparison.% %I wouldn#t say that. -our life has changed pretty dramatically since you came here, "ust as mine did. (nd your "ourney will affect more than "ust you. The li!es of e!eryone in your family will change. I would not call that insignificant.% %Perhaps.% Celli mo!ed a cupcake to her plate and picked up her fork. %6ut nothing has changed yet. &e#ll ha!e to wait and see.% 1he cut a piece of cake and put it in her mouth. %>h, that#s !ery good*% she said after she swallowed. ieran grinned. %I lo!e the lemon-raspberry. I think we should eat them all.% Celli lifted her eyebrows as she sur!eyed the four remaining cakes on the plate. %-ou aren#t going to sa!e any for .douard'% %$e can get his own cakes.% ieran /uickly ate his first cupcake and took a second one. In all likelihood, 2raelin had brought .douard tea and cakes without being asked. It was one of the ways .douard#s secretary kept him from lea!ing his office when there was a lot of work to be done. %-ou#ll spoil your dinner.% %Performing magic burns a lot of energy. I#m always hungry.%

Celli shook her head and laughed. %I can see there#s no stopping you.% %That#s right. -ou better take another now if you want more than one.% Celli#s smiled widened. %I think I will*% 1he took another and the two of them en"oyed the cakes together. It was odd how much ieran en"oyed her company, gi!en what lay ahead of them. 6ut maybe, in the end, that would make his upcoming separation from .douard easier to endure. -o-o-o-o-o-o-o3i!wall was surprised to disco!er that she en"oyed ha!ing free time. (s the relentless heat of summer began to gi!e way to cooler days with the approach of fall, she obser!ed the arri!al of new students on the island without ha!ing to do anything. .stan was /uite busy, though, testing the students and assigning them /uarters. $e kept meticulous records on each student and had already usurped an empty room near 3i!wall#s old office, which was now his, in which to keep his files. 3i!wall suspected he would need another such room in a few years. 6ut it was not something she needed to worry about and she rather liked it. +ow she had the time to hobble down to the beach and sit in the sand with the warm water lapping o!er her feet. &hat a lu5ury. 6ut e!en though he was busy, .stan still spent time researching the wi0ard disappearances. $e had gotten !ery detailed notes back from 7oret0 and ieran on the records he#d gi!en them to re!iew and was now following through on their recommendations to trace the paths of the wi0ards who had disappeared most recently. 3i!wall met with him fre/uently to discuss his findings. 1o that afternoon, she limped back to her old office to meet with .stan and the in!estigators he#d hired. 1he smiled to herself when she reali0ed the only time she went down this hallway anymore was when she was meeting with .stan. The door to the office stood open and male !oices drifted out into the hall. 1he stepped into the doorway and .stan immediately greeted her. %3i!wall, thank you for "oining us.% $e came to the door to offer her his arm and guided her to a padded seat that she suspected he kept in the office "ust for her.

The other two men in the room rose and bowed as she took her seat. %)ady 3i!wall, this is )uter Cambin and his colleague Torman 6irch,% .stan introduced the two men. %They#!e been following up on Pel $arper.% $e turned to )uter. %7ister Cambin, could you please repeat what you "ust told me'% %>f course, sir.% )uter turned to 3i!wall. %&e followed the route down the Coast $ighway and spoke to the innkeepers at e!ery stop along the way. 7ost e!eryone remembered Pel $arper. They described him as a courteous, soft-spoken fellow with almost no money to his name. That#s why they remembered him. ( poor wi0ard is noteworthy.% %I see,% 3i!wall murmured. %(nyway, after getting reports of him at an inn called The 6lue 3o!e, the people at the ne5t inn couldn#t recall seeing anyone like him.% %$e disappeared somewhere between those two inns,% .stan interrupted an5iously. %That#s how it seems,% )uter continued. %1o we went back to the 6lue 3o!e and asked more /uestions. &e learned from the innkeeper#s youngest son that he saw Pel $arper talking to two men the night he was there and that the three of them left at the same time the ne5t morning.% %3id they lea!e together'% 3i!wall asked sharply. %I asked that,% )uter replied with a nod. %6ut the boy didn#t think so. $e thinks they "ust happened to lea!e about the same time. Pel left a few minutes ahead of the other men, he thought.% %&hat about these two men' 3id you learn anything about them'% %+ot a lot, but it was all kind of suspicious. The inn where Pel ne!er showed up didn#t see two men matching their description show up either. Plus, when we checked back at the inn where Pel stayed before he arri!ed at the 6lue 3o!e, no one could remember seeing men like these two either.% %1o two men who were not tra!eling on the Coast $ighway talked to Pel at the 6lue 3o!e inn, followed him when he left, and then were not seen again,% 3i!wall said. %(nd neither was Pel,% .stan added. $e sank into a chair. %3o you think they murdered him'%

%&hy'% 3i!wall said sharply. %$e had no money. (s 7ister Cambin said, e!eryone described him as softspoken and courteous. $e was not the sort of wi0ard to inspire hatred or fear. &hat reason would they ha!e'% %)ord ieran spoke of madmen8% .stan said, his !oice filled with despair. %That#s possible,% 3i!wall said, %but I think it unlikely in this case.% 1he fi5ed a sharp eye on )uter. %$a!e you traced any other of our disappearances'% %I ha!e men working on two more of the most recent disappearances. I#!e sent them word to ask about people the wi0ards might ha!e been seen talking to.% %2ood,% 3i!wall nodded sharply. %If we find the other wi0ards were approached by two men immediately before they !anished, we may be on to something. I trust you will keep us informed, 7ister Cambin'% %>f course, my lady. (s soon as I hear from my other agents, I will make a report.% %,ery good.% 3i!wall drew a deep breath and frowned. %&hat could someone possibly hope to gain by kidnapping wi0ards' >r worse still, murdering them'% 1he rubbed her chin. %The feeling I ha!e about this grows worse by the day.% Chapter F: The Regatta The day of the regatta was perfect for sailing. ( few fluffy white clouds floated in a deep blue sky, mo!ed along by a steady wind that billowed the sails and made boats dip through the water swiftly. .ighteen ships had signed up to race, most of them doublemasted ketches. 6ut .douard had his money on one of the two single-masted sloops in the race. $e had e5perience sailing on both types of ship and belie!ed the slimmer hulled sloops would ha!e the ad!antage, despite less sail. ieran was scandali0ed that .douard had wagered on the race. $e thought, as the host of the race, .douard should not ha!e a fa!orite. 1o .douard had promised him he would gi!e the money to charity if he won. 6ut the bookmakers had put irresistibly long odds on the racer .douard thought would win, so he felt compelled to place a bet. >n the morning of the race, .douard, ieran, Celli and 7oret0 rode down to the docks together, but 7oret0 stayed ashore when the others boarded the largest of .douard#s three royal yachts. This ship had three tall masts sprouting up from its wide deck. The sailors had

decorated it with colorful pennants streaming from the masts and buntings hanging from the railing. .douard didn#t use this ship !ery often because it was so big. 6ut for this occasion, it was the perfect ship to lead the parade. (s they sailed out into the lake, do0ens of other boats "oined them, forming a long line. Celli clutched the railing and stared back at the shore as the ship mo!ed deeper into the water, then leaned o!er the side to look down. %It#s so blue*% she e5claimed. %(nd there are fish*% .douard chuckled. %&hite )ake is a !ery deep lake, that#s what makes the water so blue.% %>h*% The boat dipped through a larger wa!e and Celli s/uealed as she was splashed with spray. %It#s cold* 6ut it#s the middle of summer*% %6eing deep also means the temperature of the water doesn#t change that much. It#s warmer near the shore, where the water is shallower. 6ut out here, it tends to stay pretty cold.% .douard watched her with a warm smile. %$ow do you feel' (ny nausea'% %+o, I feel fine.% Celli leaned back o!er the railing and was splashed with spray again. 1he laughed happily. %This is fun*% .douard and ieran e5changed an amused look. %I can#t say anything,% ieran said. %I think I was the same way the first time I went sailing.% .douard took his hand. %I think it was the same for me.% %)ook at all the boats*% Celli e5claimed. 1he pointed behind them at the other ships forming the parade. %It#s so pretty*% .douard and ieran mo!ed to the railing beside her. %I#m glad to see people decorated their boats for the parade,% .douard said. %I was hoping they would. It makes the occasion more festi!e.% The three of them stood at the rail and watched the other ships as theirs led the way out into the lake before turning to sail parallel to the docks. The plan was to sail in a large o!al, gi!ing e!eryone on shore plenty of time to obser!e and appreciate the !arious yachts. +early e!ery noble family that was not participating in the race was part of the parade, e5actly as .douard had hoped. 1ince this e!ent was intended to celebrate his wedding, which would take place in two days, a large turnout was appropriate.

This time of day there was a stiff onshore bree0e, so the ships had to tack one way sailing south and the opposite way sailing north. To accommodate this, .douard#s captain went well out into the lake before starting south, since there was a good chance some ships would still be sailing south when the front of the line had turned north. The ship heeled o!er as it tacked into the bree0e and Celli grabbed the railing with a yelp. .douard laughed and put an arm around her waist. %It takes time to get used to the motion of a ship under sail,% he said. %4ela5 your knees and "ust rock with the ship.% %I think my balance wants to go in the opposite direction*% Celli e5claimed breathlessly. ieran mo!ed to her other side and put his arm around her waist, too. %It#s easier than you think. )ike .douard said, "ust rela5.% Celli leaned into their combined embrace and took a deep breath. %I think I#m getting it,% she started to say and then yelped again as the ship dipped sharply. %7aybe not*% she concluded with a laugh and looked up at the sky. %6ut look at how pretty the sails are*% .douard and ieran e5changed another look and grinned at each other. Celli#s e5citement and enthusiasm were utterly charming. 6y the time their ship made the turn and started back north, she had started to get her sea legs and went from rail to rail, alternately watching the shore, where spectators were lined up all along the waterfront, and the other ships. &hen they finally put back into the docks, she uttered a disappointed sigh. %I wish we could keep sailing,% she said. %I#!e ne!er en"oyed anything so much* It was wonderful*% %I#m glad you liked it,% .douard said. %If you want to go sailing again, "ust ask. I will be happy to make time in my schedule for it.% %Thank you*% >nce the ship was tied up at the dock, the three of them made their way ashore and walked down to the end of the dock where temporary stands had been erected so they could watch the race in relati!e comfort. The race would be following more or less the same route they had "ust sailed, e5cept that the racers would make the circuit twice. There was enough room in the stands for about fi!e do0en

people, so .douard had in!ited se!eral prominent families to "oin him. >f course, who had and had not recei!ed an in!itation was the sub"ect of intense gossip in the days leading up to the regatta. It seemed like e!erything he did these days caused endless gossip. +e!ertheless, he had made sure to in!ite )ady 3ou!ram. In her case, he hoped the gossip would say she was in!ited as a reward for her support of Celli. It was true and he hoped it would inspire others to do the same. The stands had a shade o!er them to protect the spectators from the sun and the seabirds, but it was high enough to allow the bree0e to mo!e underneath it. .douard, ieran and Celli were seated in the top row, which ga!e them the best !iew, along with 7oret0, )ady 3ou!ram and a few other nobles .douard chose to reward. )ord 7achura was not among those seated in the top row, but he and his wife and daughter were seated further down. .douard had not wanted to deal with the outrage if he snubbed 7achura by not in!iting him to sit in what were being called the royal stands. (s soon as the last of the parade boats put to shore, a horn sounded signaling the racers should mo!e into position. .!eryone began to talk e5citedly as the boats sailed out. %$ow will they manage an e/ual start'% Celli asked. %It#s not like a horse race where you can put them on a line.% %They#ll sail out a ways and turn,% .douard said. %&hen they#re more or less e!en, the harbor master will signal the start.% %That seems so...% .douard shrugged. %It works. If one boat gets too far ahead, he#ll be gi!en a handicap.% Celli leaned forward and watched intently as the boats tacked out into the lake. 1oon they began turning toward the south and a moment later the starting horn sounded. %>h*% she cried. %They#re picking up speed*% $er cry was echoed by se!eral others and people began shouting encouragement to their fa!orites. .douard was not surprised when the sloop he fa!ored had pulled into the lead by the first turn. 6y the second turn, the sloop had a comfortable lead. Three other boats were following fairly close together in

second place, with another si5 trying hard to catch up. The rest of the field was strung out behind and dropping further back. (s the third and final turn approached, .douard sat forward with a slight frown. The three boats trying to catch the leader had bunched !ery close together, but the ship on the inside had swung /uite wide on both of its pre!ious turns. If it swung that wide again, it was going to collide with one of the other two ships. $e reached out and put his hand on ieran#s knee. %I see it,% ieran said. $e stood up. %7oret0.% 7oret0 nodded and also rose. Celli looked from one to the other in confusion. %&hat is it'% %=ust watch,% .douard said. The three boats started the turn and "ust as .douard feared, the long-hulled ketch running on the inside swung wide. 1ailors on all three boats began scrambling, pulling in sail and leaning on their rudders as the boats# paths intersected. The captain of the ketch pro!ed to be unfortunately ine5perienced. $e pushed too hard on the tiller trying to sharpen his turn and his boat heeled o!er, its masts dipping into the water. The wet sails immediately acted as an anchor and the boat rolled, pitching the sailors into the lake. Cries of alarm rose up all along the waterfront. %Take the boat,% ieran said and raised his hand. (t the same time, e!ery sailor struggling in the water was lifted into the air. 7oret0 raised his hand and the ketch righted itself, water streaming off of its sails. ieran mo!ed his hand and turned it. (s he did so, the sailors floated through the air and were deposited onto the deck of the ketch. The cries of alarm turned to applause. Celli stared. %-ou can do that with magic'% %That#s relati!ely minor for these two,% .douard said. $e smiled at her. %+ot all magic is bad.% ieran and 7oret0 resumed their seats. The boat that had o!erturned was clearly out of the race, but since they were no longer in danger, e!eryone turned their attention to the conclusion of the race, cheering wildly as .douard#s fa!orite, the sleek-hulled sloop, finished first and was greeted with a long blast from the starter#s horn. %That was !ery e5citing,% Celli said. %Too bad there was an accident.%

%It#s not uncommon,% .douard said. %There are fre/uently collisions during races close to shore. 6ut wi0ards do not interfere until after an accident happens, "ust to make sure they do not influence the outcome of the race.% Celli blinked at him. %People would rather risk in"ury'% %People usually ha!e money on races,% .douard replied matter-of-factly. %If the outcome were called into /uestion because of magic, it might cause people to start distrusting any contest of skill. 1o wi0ards only inter!ene when li!es are actually in danger, not before.% Celli digested this information for a moment and then chuckled softly. %It#s probably wrong of me, but that makes me feel better. I think I prefer that magic is a last resort.% .douard stood up and offered her his hand. %)et#s go congratulate the winner.% $e had ordered pa!ilions to be erected on the beach for the post-race celebration. Tables co!ered with food and drink awaited the racers and parade participants. The captain of the winning boat, a teenaged youth of noble blood, was delighted to recei!e the gold medallion .douard hung around his neck, and was e!en happier when .douard confided that he had wagered on him. %I am honored to ha!e won for you, your ma"esty*% he e5claimed. Then the youth scurried off to proudly show his friends his award and to recount the details of the race to a rapt audience. ieran regarded .douard with a stern e5pression. %I belie!e you said you would donate your winnings.% %I did indeed,% .douard chuckled. %6ut I will allow my future /ueen to choose the charity.% )ady 3ou!ram, who had accompanied Celli from the stands, immediately perked up. %If you ha!e no chosen charity, your ma"esty, perhaps you would consider a new charitable endea!or I ha!e recently wished to undertake. (s you know, I stri!e daily to impro!e the li!es of the impo!erished in &hite 1hores and the slums in this city ha!e become intolerable. I was hoping to raise money to help the poor make needed repairs to their dwellings.% Celli frowned slightly. %$ona,% she said, her tone carrying "ust a hint of chastisement, %you ha!e not gi!en me the opportunity to approach his ma"esty about this matter. It had been my intention to ask,

after the wedding, if I might set up a <ueen#s Commission to make capital impro!ements in &hite 1hores funded by the crown. I had not anticipated his ma"esty refusing such a worthwhile !enture.% $ona#s eyes widened slightly at the faint reproach in Celli#s !oice. %;orgi!e me, your highness, but I was unaware of your plans.% 1he drew herself up slightly. %-ou know that my concern for others is my greatest moti!ation.% %I know that, $ona. I respect your compassion !ery much. I had thought to surprise you with the commission and sa!e you from the trouble of fundraising.% Celli smiled and lifted her eyebrows. %&ere you surprised'% $ona blinked se!eral times, and then she chuckled and shook her head. %-ou show both sternness and humor in your admonishment, your highness. I apologi0e for o!erstepping my bounds.% .douard watched this e5change with satisfaction. Celli had skillfully established her superior position without actually offending the lady. %(nd my betrothed is correct, )ady 3ou!ram. I would be !ery pleased to fund her commission. Impro!ing the li!ing conditions of my citi0ens is an important task.% )ady 3ou!ram#s smile widened. %I am !ery pleased, your ma"esty. -our generosity, and that of your future /ueen,% she paused and inclined her head to Celli, %will benefit the li!es of countless people.% %I am grateful for your efforts, my lady,% .douard replied. %(s king, I cannot attend to e!ery detail myself, so ha!ing dedicated persons like you and my betrothed to pro!ide care where I cannot is a great comfort.% %It is my honor to do so.% There were a number of nobles close enough to o!erhear this con!ersation and se!eral immediately spoke up, offering pledges to $ona and Celli in support of their new commission. .douard managed not to smirk. It was ob!ious to him that most of them were speaking up simply so he would see them beha!ing generously. 6ut at least his known distaste for greedy and selfish nobles would ultimately benefit those in need. -o-o-o-o-oieran liked to stay close to .douard when the king was out in public, but close was relati!e for him, since

he could cast !ery strong magic o!er a considerable distance. 1o he allowed some space to open up between him and .douard, letting .douard and Celli interact with their sub"ect nobles as a couple. They looked good together and ieran sighed, feeling frustrated. (s 3octor 1efrin had recommended, he had mo!ed back to his old room fi!e days ago to remo!e the temptation to make lo!e with .douard. 6ut he missed more than the intimacy9 he missed the companionship. It was lonely sleeping alone. %Thinking about the future'% 3i!wall said from right beside him. ieran started. %I#m sorry, 3i!wall* I didn#t see you.% %I /uite understand,% she said. %I daresay you ha!e a lot on your mind.% 1he nodded in .douard and Celli#s direction. %$ow are you getting on with .douard#s fiancEe'% %<uite well, actually,% ieran replied. %I like Celli !ery much. 1he#ll make a good /ueen.% %I#m glad to hear it. >n both counts.% 3i!wall shifted her weight slightly, leaning a little more hea!ily on her cane. ieran noticed. %Is it all right for you to be standing this long'% %It#s not too bad. Tank de!eloped a new cream that reduces the swelling in my "oints considerably.% 1he grinned at him. %$e said he based it on one of your formulas that you got from your mentor.% %3id he really'% ieran smiled back. %I shall ha!e to tell 3octor 1efrin. $e was complaining about pain in his "oints and he is always e5cited about new combinations of magic and medicine. 1o are you here as a representati!e of the $all'% 3i!wall shook her head. %+o. I decided to en"oy my new freedom and lea!e 6right Isle for a few days. I#m planning to attend the wedding, but 2a!ilan will be bringing o!er se!eral of our best wi0ards to represent the $all that day as a show of support for the king. 6ut I thought I might come early and use this opportunity to meet 7iss (mbrea. I confess I#m still a little surprised that .douard chose her.% %-ou won#t be once you meet her,% ieran said. %Indeed'% 3i!wall lifted an eyebrow. %$ow are the nobles taking it'%

ieran chuckled. %>h, e!eryone is on their best beha!ior right now. 6ut I think they#ll start showing their true colors after the wedding. Celli should hold her own, though, especially if she has a baby right away. 1he has the determination and the will to be /ueen and that will work in her fa!or.% 3i!wall eyed him casually. %(re you planning to stay at court the night of the wedding' -ou could go o!er to 6right Isle for a few days.% %I#ll be fine, 3i!wall,% ieran said, answering her unspoken /uestion. %If I were someone who wished .douard harm, his wedding night would be the moment I would strike, on the assumption that his lo!esick bodyguard would not be there.% ieran wrinkled his nose and laughed ruefully. %I will be on duty in the palace, if not particularly close by. 4emember, I will know where .douard is and who he is with no matter where I am, so being on 6right Isle wouldn#t make much difference.% %-ou#re a !ery dedicated wi0ard, that.% ieran. I respect

ieran decided to change the sub"ect. %$ow is the in!estigation going'% %;airly well, I think.% 6ut the frown that clouded 3i!wall#s features seemed to indicate otherwise. ieran studied her face. %6ut you don#t know what#s happened to them yet.% %+o, we don#t.% 3i!wall#s frown blossomed into a scowl. %To be perfectly honest, I think all the missing wi0ards are dead. 6ut I don#t understand why*% she added angrily. %-es, wi0ards are feared and sometimes hated, but why murder them' (nd especially wi0ards like these without the strength to do any real harm' It makes no sense*% %7aybe you#re looking at it the wrong way,% ieran said thoughtfully. %&hat if these particular wi0ards were chosen for that !ery reason' 6ecause they were too weak to pose any real magical threat'% 3i!wall stared at him. %>nce again, your outside-in way of looking at things forces me to rethink e!erything.% 1he sighed. %6ut I would still ha!e to ask why.% 1he shifted her weight again and looked toward .douard and Celli. %Perhaps I will go introduce myself to 7iss (mbrea now. I#m not sure I want to think about this anymore at the moment.% 1he fa!ored ieran with a crooked smile. %If you will e5cuse me.%

%>f course.% ieran watched 3i!wall limp o!er to .douard and Celli. .douard immediately interrupted his con!ersation to greet her. .!en from where he was standing, ieran could see Celli stiffen slightly at being introduced to yet another powerful wi0ard. 1he was going to ha!e to get o!er that fear. (s /ueen, she would be interacting with powerful wi0ards on a regular basis. 1he would probably e!en ha!e to go to 6right Isle at some point. 6ut for now, it didn#t matter. 2etting past the animosity of the nobility had to come first. They returned from the outing at sunset. 7oret0 had decided to accompany 3i!wall back to the palace, since she was planning to stay until the wedding, so ieran, .douard and Celli had the carriage to themsel!es. This allowed Celli to rela5 more and she slumped into the corner of the seat with a deep sigh. %&hat a long day*% she e5claimed. %I thought spending the day at the soup kitchen was e5hausting.% %&e were in the sun a lot,% .douard replied. %That always makes me tired.% ieran laughed at them. %-ou should try spending an afternoon in training on 6right Isle when the professor is sure you are purposely not getting what he thinks is a perfectly simple concept. I remember nearly passing out during one session because my instructor refused to belie!e a wi0ard as strong as I am has no ability to far-see whatsoe!er.% %I thought all wi0ards could do that,% Celli said. %$ardly,% ieran chuckled. %In fact, it#s a fairly speciali0ed skill. >nly a few wi0ards ha!e an aptitude for it. I do ha!e a talent for prophetic sight, but I don#t use it much because it#s easy to misinterpret the !isions.% Celli stared. %-ou can foresee the future'% %I wouldn#t call it that,% ieran answered. %7y !isions are !ery limited. They most often come to me in dreams, so separating the prophecy from simple dreaming can be tricky. I usually reali0e I foresaw something after it#s happened. (nyway, 7a 6ricker, the woman who taught me magic when I was a ser!ant, told me foresight can be !ery dangerous, because if you start letting the !isions influence your beha!ior, you#ll end up causing a disaster.% Celli shi!ered. %I#m glad I#m not a wi0ard* -our li!es sound so complicated.%

ieran shrugged. %They can be. 6ut there are benefits, too. I do not regret becoming what I am. In a sense, ser!ing the crown as a royal wi0ard is "ust an e5tension of the life I began on )ord Inchor#s estate. I am still a ser!ant, but the responsibilities I carry are much greater.% %3o all royal wi0ards share this !iew'% %7any do, although admittedly, they are not often called upon to perform their ser!ice to the crown. The &i0ard :prising was the last time and we hope not to see a repeat of that any time soon.% %I see,% Celli said thoughtfully. 1he looked out the carriage window, chewing on her lip. %&e should dine together this e!ening,% .douard said. %&ith tomorrow being the last day before the wedding, I think we may all be too busy to see each other. Celli, when do you think your family will arri!e'% Celli flinched. The attendance of her family had been one of the few times ieran had heard her and .douard disagree. The (mbreas had not wanted to come to court in force, for fear it might undermine the progress Celli had made so far in getting accepted. 6ut .douard was adamant that all of her immediate family members be there. %7y mother plans to arri!e tomorrow,% Celli said. %1he, my uncle, my brother and his wife will be here.% 1he met .douard#s eyes. %7other did not want to bring any of the children. 1he doesn#t want them to hear the sorts of things people say about us.% .douard nodded. %I can accept that. -our mother is the family matriarch and your brother is her heir. (s long as they attend, I am satisfied. (nd I will be glad for the chance to meet your brother.% %Thank you for understanding, .douard.% %6ut you must understand that I will e5pect regular !isits from them, not only for your sake, but to also make your family#s importance in this kingdom clear. I think your mother will understand. It was her idea to send you to court in the first place, after all.% %-ou#re right, of course,% Celli agreed with a sigh. %It#s like this silly fear of wi0ards that I cannot seem to shake. >ur fear of public re!ulsion is also hard to o!ercome.% .douard smiled. %3on#t worry. It will all get easier in time.%

%I certainly hope so.% Celli made a face. %6ecause the day after tomorrow, I will be surrounded by do0ens of the most powerful wi0ards in the kingdom, along with all of the most prominent noble families. It is an (mbrea#s worst nightmare.% .douard and ieran broke out laughing. %+e!er fear, Celli,% .douard said, wiping tears from his eyes. %-ou will ha!e both of us to defend your honor and safeguard your well-being.% Celli began to laugh, too, albeit somewhat ruefully. %$onestly, that does make me feel better. =ust please don#t laugh at me e!ery time I flinch.% ieran said nothing while .douard and Celli continued to talk. $e wondered if Celli reali0ed how odd it was that the one wi0ard she did not feel uncomfortable around was also the most powerful and dangerous wi0ard in the kingdom, and the one person with the most reason to resent her. $e wondered what would happen when the members of her family arri!ed. Chapter G: The Wedding Celli#s family arri!ed /uite late the day before the wedding. $er mother, (lthea (mbrea, planned it that way to minimi0e their interaction with the other nobles at court, but Celli could ha!e told her it was unnecessary. .douard had told Captain 1oleson to watch out for them and to conduct them to their /uarters under guard to a!oid unpleasantness. (ll that arri!ing late did was pre!ent Celli from being able to introduce them to .douard that night. (s it was, she had nearly gone to bed herself, ha!ing grown tired of waiting for them. 1o her mood was less than pleasant when a guard came to inform her of their arri!al. +e!ertheless, she put a cloak on o!er her dressing gown and went down the hall to the /uarters .douard had assigned them. The suite of rooms was in the family wing of the palace and would ha!e accommodated far more than the four people who were occupying them. 6ut the suite was !ery well appointed, appropriate for people who were about to become related by marriage to the royal family. Celli#s uncle, Clo!is (mbrea, answered the door when she knocked. %Celli* -ou look wonderful, my dear.% $e kissed her on the cheek. %Thank you, :ncle.% Celli entered the room, where her brother and his wife waited. %2ood e!ening, (rmand,% she greeted her brother. %$ow was your "ourney'%

%:ne!entful,% (rmand answered. $e also kissed her cheek. Celli turned to her sister-in-law, who had been seated when she entered. 7ira (mbrea, her brother#s wife, wore the lost, wounded e5pression that many of the (mbreas-by-marriage ac/uired upon becoming part of the most hated family in the kingdom and subse/uently losing all contact with their birth family. 1he rose to touch hands gra!ely with Celli, but she didn#t smile. 7ira and (rmand had been married almost two years and had one child, a son. (fter greeting 7ira, Celli returned her attention to her uncle. %&here#s mother'% %I#m here.% (lthea came out of one of the bedrooms, changed from tra!el clothes into her dressing gown. (lthea had become the matriarch of the (mbrea family when her father decided to mo!e to the family#s southern holdings because of poor health. Celli#s father had gone with him, mainly to escape the same loneliness that was reflected in 7ira#s eyes. It always troubled Celli that the e5tended (mbrea family did not pro!ide enough emotional support for the ones who married in. 1he had ne!er felt alone or unlo!ed growing up. %2ood e!ening, 7other,% Celli said. %I wish you had arri!ed sooner. .douard has already gone to bed.% %&ith his lo!er, I suppose,% (lthea said with a sniff of disappro!al. Celli frowned. %(s a matter fact, he is sleeping alone tonight, although that is none of your business.% (lthea#s brows lowered slightly. %-ou are not /ueen yet, daughter. I do not think you should be taking such a tone with me.% Celli crossed her arms and said nothing, but her e5pression didn#t change. %It is unfortunate that you could not persuade his ma"esty to put his lo!er aside,% (lthea continued. %I imagine your li!ing arrangements ha!e already caused a great deal of talk.% (lthea mo!ed to a chair and sat down, carefully making sure her dressing gown remained neatly closed o!er her legs. %-ou sent me here with orders to win the crown,% Celli answered shortly. %I do not think you should /uestion the compromises I chose to make to achie!e that goal.%

(lthea opened her mouth, but Clo!is interrupted her before she could speak. %Celli#s right,% Clo!is said /uickly. %>ur goal was to put the crown on her head. &hen our bloodline has mingled with that of the royal family, we will ha!e taken our first step out of the shadows.% %(nd how is that supposed to happen if the king is sleeping with this8 this man'% (lthea gestured angrily. %(s I said,% Celli reiterated tightly, %.douard is not sleeping with him right now. &e will consummate our marriage tomorrow night "ust like any other newly wedded couple and we will continue to sleep together until his child is in my womb. &hile I will accept your poor opinion of my "udgment, I will not allow you to call .douard#s "udgment into /uestion. $e is a brilliant man and an e5cellent king.% 1he glared at her mother, knowing full well the shortness of her temper was a direct result of being tired. (lthea returned her glare for se!eral long seconds, then drew in a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. %,ery well, Celli, I will accept and defer to your "udgment in the matter. I trusted you enough to send you here alone, so I will continue to trust you.% 1he sighed again. %-ou understand how important this is to all of us. I do not want to li!e under this burden anymore. I want our children to grow up with friends who are not their cousins.% 1he glanced at 7ira. %;or once, I would like to celebrate a wedding that was not arranged years in ad!ance.% Celli let her arms drop to her sides. %I understand, 7other. I want this, too. (nd I will make it happen, belie!e me. )ord ieran is not an impediment to this goal. $e is my friend.% (lthea stared. %-our friend'* 6ut8% 1he blinked in surprise and confusion. %$e is the king#s lo!er* (nd a royal wi0ard besides*% %I know that,% Celli said. 1he smiled. %It sounds !ery odd, I know, but )ord ieran was the first friend I made here and he continues to be one of my closest companions. 6ecause of his background, he does not carry the instincti!e distrust of us (mbreas that e!eryone else does. -ou should try to put aside your resentment of him, 7other. -ou will understand when you meet him.% %,ery well.% (lthea slowly shook her head. %This is all new, so I shall ha!e to make the best of the

situation.% 1he smiled at Celli. %&ell, I imagine you#re an5ious to get to bed. &e can talk more in the morning, I#m sure.% %>f course, 7other. I was hoping you would attend me while I dress.% %>f course I will, dear.% (lthea rose and put her hands on Celli#s shoulders. %I#m !ery proud of you, my dear. (ll our hopes are resting on you and you ha!e achie!ed as much as we could ha!e wished for.% 1he kissed Celli on the forehead. %2ood night.% Celli kissed her cheek. %2ood night, 7other.% 1he bid the others good night and went back out into the hall. $er two burly bodyguards were waiting, their wide faces e5pressionless. The hall was empty. Celli walked /uickly back to her own rooms. Inside, her maid =ean was waiting, slumped on a stool by the door to her bedroom. Initially, Celli only had =ean and her other maid, .sther, to attend her. 6ut .douard had subse/uently assigned her four more maids, a seamstress and a secretary. $e said it was an appropriate le!el of personal staff for a /ueen and Celli took his word for it, but she was not at all sure what to do with so many attendants. =ean started awake and "umped up when Celli closed the hall door. %;orgi!e me, your highness* I didn#t mean to do0e off*% %It#s all right, =ean,% Celli said. %I didn#t want to be up this late, either.% 1he walked into the bedroom with =ean on her heels, shrugging out of her cloak and dressing gown. %(lthough I don#t know if I#ll be able to sleep, thinking about tomorrow.% =ean tossed Celli#s gown o!er the foot of her bed and hung the cloak up in her closet. %&ould you like a sleeping draught'% %+o.% Celli made a face. %Those draughts always lea!e me groggy the ne5t day.% 1he crawled into bed, pulling the blankets up o!er her knees. =ean hesitated, twisting her hands together. %Is there something else'% %&ell, um8% =ean shifted her feet ner!ously. %If I speak out of turn, your highness, please tell me, but...% she hesitated again. Celli waited for her to continue. %I was thinking that you might not want to ha!e to spend too many nights with his ma"esty and8 well8% 1he swallowed, unable to meet Celli#s eyes. %I talked to one of the other maids and she said she

could get you a fertility spell. If you drink it less than a day before you#re with a man, you#ll concei!e for sure.% Celli stared. %( fertility spell'% %It#s an herbal drink,% =ean said hastily. %It has a little magical enhancement to make it more effecti!e, so I guess it#s not really a spell.% Celli#s eyes lost focus as she considered this. ;or weeks now, she had tried not to think too much about what would happen on her wedding night, but the fact was she would be ha!ing se5 with .douard. There was really no way around that. (nd she would need to continue ha!ing se5 with him until she concei!ed, no matter how long it took. 1he liked .douard !ery much, but she did not ha!e romantic feelings for him. 1he was certain she could do what needed to be done, but she really didn#t like the idea of keeping him and ieran apart while she worked to fulfill her duty to the kingdom. :sing a fertility spell to speed up the process sounded reasonable under the circumstances. (nd the sooner she ga!e birth, the more assured her position in the kingdom would become, and by e5tension, the position of her family. 1he looked up and met =ean#s an5ious ga0e. %Thank you, =ean. I think I would like to use the fertility spell. 3o you trust the person who offered it to you'% %-es, your highness,% =ean replied with a nod. %,ery well. 6ring it to me tomorrow.% %-es, your highness*% =ean curtsied, a relie!ed smile on her face, and scurried around the room e5tinguishing the lamps before lea!ing. Celli settled down in the bed thoughtfully. It was probably safe to use the fertility spell. ieran#s spell would protect her from anything harmful, and if it worked, she might not ha!e to spend more than her wedding night with .douard. -o-o-o-o-o-o-o>n the day of the wedding, ieran stayed close by .douard#s side. $is main purpose was to discourage casual con!ersation. .douard did not ha!e time for it. It was also to curtail last minute protests about the presence of se!eral (mbreas at court. (lthough people had held their tongues for the most part when it was "ust Celli, now that four members of her family were in the palace, old grie!ances began bubbling up.

ieran had not actually met the (mbreas yet himself. They had arri!ed late the pre!ious night and had not left their rooms since, as far as he knew. 6ut the news of their presence had ne!ertheless spread instantly. ieran knew he would ha!e to meet them sooner or later, but he was not really looking forward to it. $e could imagine what they must think of him. 6ut sitting on the edge of the bed watching =ustus dress .douard in his wedding garb, ieran stopped worrying about that, a faint smile on his face. &atching =ustus fuss o!er .douard, his brow wrinkled with concentration, ieran was reminded of when .douard was a child and =ustus had needed to help him get dressed and undressed e!ery day. %-our cuff is crooked,% he remarked. %&hat'% .douard looked at the wrong one first and then noticed the turned cuff on his other arm. %>h, I see.% $e straightened the cuff and ad"usted the cufflink. %&hat are you planning to wear'% %&hat I ha!e on,% ieran replied. .douard wrinkled his nose. %-ou#!e already worn that a do0en times. -ou didn#t ha!e anything else made'% ieran looked down at himself. %These are my dress robes* (nyway, I#m not the one getting married.% .douard ga!e him a long look. %People will still be looking at you.% ieran shrugged. %1o let them think about the fact that I am a royal wi0ard first. 7y dress robes are good enough.% $e grinned. %It#s too late now anyway.% %-ou "ust don#t want to get dressed up,% .douard said accusingly. %;ancy clothes are for nobles.% %-ou#re a noble.% %>nly in name.% %1top talking, please,% =ustus interrupted absently. $e tapped .douard under the chin to make him lift it and carefully wound his cra!at around his neck, smoothing the ends and tucking them inside his !est. %There.% $e retrie!ed .douard#s tailcoat from its hanger and held it out. .douard slid his arms in and settled the coat on his shoulders. %$ow do I look'% %$andsome, as always,% of looking at .douard. ieran replied. $e ne!er tired

.douard e5amined himself in the mirror. %It#s odd.% %&hat is'% %The feeling I get sometimes when I look at myself and see this grown man looking back at me.% $e gestured at the mirror. %I spent so many years ne!er e5pecting to grow up. .!ery now and then when I look in the mirror, I don#t recogni0e the person looking back.% %-ou look the same to me,% ieran said. .douard turned to look at him. %1o do you.% $e held ieran#s eyes for a long time. &ithout thinking, ieran stood up and kissed him. .douard returned the kiss for se!eral seconds before drawing away. %.nough of that or I#ll forget what I#m supposed to be doing today.% $e stepped away and turned slowly in a circle. %(m I missing anything'% %-ou are ready to be married, your ma"esty,% =ustus said appro!ingly. %,ery good. I want to start on time. 4oyal wedding ceremonies take long enough as it is.% >ut in the hall, .douard#s bodyguards waited for them, along with se!eral additional men. (lthough this was the family wing, .douard normally did not restrict people from entering this part of the palace. 6ut today, guards stood at the main hallway blocking off the entrance to the family wing. In the hallway beyond, nobles milled about impatiently, eager for the ceremony to begin. (s soon as .douard came into !iew, se!eral !oices called out. %2ood day, your ma"esty*% %Congratulations, your ma"esty*% 6ut beneath the friendly greetings was an undercurrent of discontent. ieran saw angry looks on many faces as he and .douard stepped between the guards. emian 3obrick was the first to clasp .douard#s hand. %(n auspicious day, your ma"esty* I gi!e you my heartfelt congratulations.% %Thank you, )ord 3obric,% .douard replied. %1oon enough it will be your wedding we will be celebrating.% %-es, I hope so,% emian said, but there was a doubtful look in his eye. ieran wondered if his latest engagement was in trouble.

.douard mo!ed on, greeting other nobles and accepting their congratulations. 1lowly, they made their way to the main audience hall, where the wedding would be conducted. ( stage had been erected at the far end for a small group of musicians, but they were not currently playing. <uite a large crowd had already filled the room when they arri!ed and it took .douard and ieran some time to make their way through to the dais. 6ut once they had climbed the steps, the crowd fell back and .douard was able to face the room. ieran stood behind .douard#s left shoulder so he could watch the crowd without obstructing .douard#s !ision. .douard cleared his throat and held his hands up for silence. &hen the room did not immediately grow /uiet, ieran calmly suppressed e!eryone#s !oices with a spell. $e did it without mo!ing or speaking and smiled with amusement at the shocked looks on people#s faces when their !oices suddenly became muted. )ady 3i!wall, leaning on her cane at one end of the dais, ga!e him an admonishing look. %)adies and gentlemen,% .douard began, %today marks the beginning of a new era in &hite 1hores. There has not been a /ueen within these walls in o!er twenty years. &hile that may not seem like a long time to some of you, many of us ha!e ne!er known a time when there was a /ueen. I look forward to the days ahead with great anticipation. >ur kingdom has been through some difficult trials, but with this important step, we will establish once more the heritage that has made this kingdom great. I urge all of you to let go of the past. 4espect our traditions, but forget the hardships. )et us all look ahead with open hearts and embrace the future that is to come.% ieran reali0ed .douard was talking specifically about the reintroduction of the (mbreas into society. $e wondered if anyone would listen. .douard sat down. %(nd now we wait,% he said /uietly. ieran mo!ed to stand at his right hand. %;or what'% %Celli sets the pace now,% .douard replied. %The wedding will start when she#s ready. In the meantime, I get to remind e!eryone of their fealty to the crown.% $e lifted his hand and beckoned to a gentleman standing nearby. The gentleman tapped a lady#s arm to get her attention and the two of them stepped in front of .douard and bowed. %)ord 3arney, I ha!e not seen you in court for some time.%

%+ot since the memorial for your late father fi!e years ago,% )ord 3arney answered with another bow. %>ur holdings are /uite far away.% %Indeed,% .douard replied casually. %6ut not so far that you forget the obligations of rank, I trust'% %>f course not, your ma"esty*% 3arney said /uickly. %In fact, I am planning to send my eldest son to court ne5t year to learn his duty.% %,ery good. I look forward to meeting him.% )ord and )ady 3arney stepped away and .douard beckoned to another noble. (t first, ieran wondered how .douard decided which nobles to call forward, but after listening to .douard#s con!ersations with them, he reali0ed that .douard was singling out those nobles who did not spend a lot of time at court, which made perfect sense. These were people who would not ha!e met Celli yet and might still be harboring resentment regarding the selection of an (mbrea. 7oreo!er, since they spent little time at court, they would also not know .douard well. The casual con!ersations continued for about an hour. 6ut shortly after midday, a page came to the foot of the dais and bowed to get .douard#s attention. %$er highness is ready,% the young man murmured. %,ery well.% .douard stood up and gestured to the musicians. They began to play a processional and, after a brief surge in e5cited e5clamations, the crowd grew still. ieran had ne!er been to a wedding before and he wondered how this one would work. There was no seating for anyone e5cept the king and /ueen on the dais. .!eryone else was standing. 6ut as the music played, a double column of royal guards in dress uniforms entered from the hall. The crowd separated to let them through and the guards slowly mo!ed apart until they had formed a wide aisle leading from the entrance to the dais. The ne5t to enter was the elderly priest who ran the >ld Church. >stensibly, the royal family were members of the >ld Church, but .douard ne!er attended. The tenets of the >ld Church held that wi0ardry was e!il and since the &i0ard :prising the church had e5perienced a resurgence in popularity. 6ut many more people followed the +ew Church, which incorporated wi0ards into the fold. The oaths wi0ards swore upon recei!ing their robes were based in part on the obser!ances of the +ew Church.

(fter the priest had "oined them on the dais, Celli#s family entered. ( soft hiss of disappro!al arose the instant )ady (mbrea stepped through the door. 1he did not react to the sound, but kept her chin up as she walked down the aisle with her brother at her side, followed by her son and his wife. The four of them walked to the end of the aisle and stepped to the side, lea!ing the space in front of the dais clear. .douard nodded to them !ery slightly as they took their place. Then the music rose to a crescendo and Celli stepped into the doorway. 1he was wearing a gown whose snow white purity was gi!en sparkling brilliance by countless seed pearls sewn into the cloth. $er long dark hair was captured in a net that was also wo!en with seed pearls, with a row of diamonds hanging across her forehead below her gold circlet. 1he wore a gold necklace studded with diamonds o!er the high collar of her dress. 1he looked utterly beautiful and ieran couldn#t help smiling. 7oret0 escorted her into the room, her white-glo!ed hand resting on the back of his wrist. ieran was glad to see no trace of Celli#s normal ner!ousness around 7oret0 showing on her face. 6ut then, she was probably more dismayed by the !olume of people staring at her. $e did not suppress the whispers that accompanied her down the aisle and up onto the dais, where .douard took her hand from 7oret0. The noise faded as ieran and 7oret0 went behind the chairs on the dais to wait while .douard and Celli turned to face the priest. ieran watched the room rather than the ceremony. It wasn#t so much that it upset him to see .douard being bound to someone else. 6ut there was a sense of finality to the proceedings that bothered him and made him look away. &atching the people standing closest to the (mbreas, he could see the resentment and distaste in their e5pressions. Celli may ha!e won a few con!erts, but her family was still deeply disliked. 6ut perhaps more dismaying was the number of people who appeared to be watching him. $e could see people staring at him and then leaning toward each other and whispering. $e wondered if they were hoping to see him react in some way. $is eyes fell on 7ichia 7achura and she smirked at him. ieran stiffened but managed to keep his e5pression from changing. Then he saw 3i!wall and 2a!ilan ga0ing at

him speculati!ely and anger started to well up in him. &as this all that anyone cared about' They were witnessing the wedding of a king, something that might happen only once in their lifetimes, and yet they would rather spend the time speculating on how unhappy his lo!er might be. Irritated, he looked back at .douard and Celli. They looked appropriately royal as they stood there recei!ing the priest#s blessing and repeating their !ows. 6ut the !ows they made were not about faithfulness and obedience to each other, but were instead to the kingdom they both ser!ed. The oaths left .douard free to do e5actly as he intended to do, which was keep ieran as his lo!er while raising a family with Celli. ieran smiled and his irritation melted away. It didn#t matter what anyone else thought. The three of them would be happy together and that was all that mattered. -o-o-o(s he had at the regatta, ieran kept his distance during the reception. $e kept .douard and Celli in sight, but he didn#t stay all that close to them. (s the 4oyal &i0ard, 7oret0 stayed beside them, looking resplendent in brand new robes he#d had made for the occasion. ieran had teased 7oret0 about that, but 7oret0 had been adamant about taking the opportunity to remind e!eryone of the 4oyal &i0ard#s standing in the kingdom. +ow that .douard was married, 7oret0 ranked third in the kingdom after Celli and he wanted to make sure e!eryone was aware of that. %)ord ieran, will you allow me to introduce myself'% ieran turned smoothly and inclined his head to (lthea (mbrea. %I am honored to meet you, )ady (mbrea.% (lthea returned his slight bow. %7y daughter tells me that you and she ha!e become friends.% There was a faintly /uestioning tone in (lthea#s !oice, but her e5pression remained politely curious. %Celli and I are !ery close, my lady,% ieran replied. %I hope you will forgi!e me for finding it odd under the circumstances,% (lthea said. %I am aware of your relationship with his ma"esty.% %I take no offense.% ieran studied her face. %If you are concerned that it will pre!ent Celli from fulfilling her duties as /ueen,% he guessed, %don#t be. I want Celli and .douard to ha!e children together. It is

necessary for the kingdom and I am ser!ant of the crown first.% (lthea#s eyes flicked to the royal crest on his shoulder. %There is much you could do to help or harm their relationship,% she said obli/uely. %.douard is king, )ady (mbrea,% ieran replied. %$e places the good of the kingdom abo!e himself, as we all do. -our family will obtain its blood tie to the crown. -ou ha!e less to fear from me than you do all of them.% $e gestured toward the room at large. (lthea#s lips pressed together. %I know what I must fear from them,% she said. %6ut a wi0ard lea!es me in doubt9 a wi0ard in lo!e e!en more so.% 1he met his ga0e s/uarely. %I ha!e told Celli that I would trust her "udgment in this matter, but I would ne!ertheless feel better if I had some assurance from you. I admit I am a poor "udge of a wi0ard#s moti!ation.% ieran couldn#t help smiling. 1uddenly, he could see the same uncertainty in (lthea#s manner that he fre/uently saw in Celli when she was around wi0ards. %)ady (mbrea, a wi0ard#s moti!ation is easier to understand than a man#s. I am a royal wi0ard9 a ser!ant of the crown. I owe my allegiance to this kingdom first and foremost. I cannot and do not allow my personal feelings to sway my decisions or beha!ior. 6ut more to the point, I am .douard#s ser!ant. I will do whate!er he tells me. 1o, as much as I care for him, when he tells me to stay out of his bed because he has other obligations, I obey him. -our daughter will be the mother of his children.% (lthea#s lips twitched into a smile. %1o you place the entire burden of my concern on his ma"esty#s shoulders'% %It has always been the case that we must rely on .douard#s "udgment.% ieran grinned. %6ut I trust him absolutely and I think Celli does, too.% %I see.% (lthea glanced at her daughter, standing beside her new husband. %1o tonight will tell.% %I really don#t think we ha!e anything to worry about.% %&ell, we shall know tomorrow.% (lthea bowed her head. %Thank you for speaking so honestly with me, )ord ieran. It can be uncomfortable broaching such delicate sub"ects, so I appreciate your candor.% %I understand your concern, )ady (mbrea. I hope you en"oy the rest of the e!ening.%

(lthea made a face. %(s well as an (mbrea can in the midst of the lion#s den,% she said as she turned away. %2ood e!ening, )ord ieran.% %2ood e!ening, my lady.% ieran did not speak to anyone else the rest of the e!ening, and when .douard and Celli finally took their lea!e, he left as well. .douard was planning to spend the night in Celli#s room, so ieran went back to their room for the first time in se!eral days. 6ut he was surprised to find =ustus there when he entered. %-ou#re not attending his ma"esty tonight, =ustus'% %$is ma"esty said it was unnecessary.% =ustus half smiled. %I belie!e her ma"esty dismissed her attendants as well.% %>h.% ieran swallowed. It made sense in a way. $a!ing a crowd of people around helping them undress would probably "ust make them both uncomfortable. %I ha!e not changed the bedding yet, my lord,% =ustus said, a little too casually. %I can if you like.% ieran slowly shook his head. %+o, thank you. 2ood night, =ustus.% %2ood night, my lord.% &hen he was alone, ieran stripped out of his clothes and crawled into bed on the side .douard normally slept on. The scent of .douard#s body and hair clung to the bedding and he buried his face in the pillow. ;or the first time, he allowed his feelings to come fully to the surface and he wept as he lay there. $e refused to think about what .douard was doing9 being alone hurt more than enough. Chapter 1H: The Fertility S ell % ieran.% ieran stirred awake, suffused by the sense of .douard#s presence. %.douard*% $e sat up sharply. %Is something wrong'% ieran#s innate senses told him it was not yet dawn. %+o, but8% .douard sat down on the edge of the bed and stroked his fingers through ieran#s hair. %I had the feeling last night that you were crying. Celli told me I should check on you.% %Celli told you8'% ieran began and then he stiffened. %$ow did you know' I...% $e fell silent, too confused to continue.

.douard leaned forward and touched his forehead to ieran#s. %The bond between us has e5isted for a long time, belo!ed. Is it any wonder that I should start to ha!e some sense of you as you ha!e of me'% ieran stared. It simply had not occurred to him that .douard could become aware of the spell connecting them in the same way he was. %I didn#t mean8% he began softly, but .douard kissed him !ery gently, stopping his words. %It#s all right, ieran. I didn#t say anything to Celli until afterward. &e finished what we needed to do.% $e looked into ieran#s eyes from only inches away. This close, ieran could see the flecks of gold speckled through the dark brown of .douard#s eyes, despite the low le!el of light in the room. %-ou should !isit Celli today, though. 1he#s terribly worried about losing your friendship.% ieran ga0ed back into .douard#s eyes, breathing slowly. It was hard to think about anything but .douard sitting this close to him, feeling .douard#s breath against his lips, feeling the warmth of .douard#s skin against his forehead. ieran wrapped his arms around .douard#s neck and pulled the young king down on top of him. %I lo!e you, .douard.% .douard embraced him. %I lo!e you, too, ieran.% $e pressed his lips against ieran#s and ieran responded with helpless passion. There was no way he could resist his need for .douard#s touch any longer. $e needed .douard#s lo!e. $e needed to feel the heat of .douard#s skin against his, needed to feel the urgent passion of .douard#s lo!e deep inside him. $e held onto .douard tightly, ne!er wanting to let go. They made lo!e until after the sun rose9 the bright light of morning leaking through the drapes and falling across the bed. .douard glanced at the window. %I suspect =ustus is waiting outside the door.% %Probably.% ieran contentedly slid his hands up and down .douard#s arms. $is frustration and loneliness finally appeased, he felt ready to face the day. $e kissed .douard#s chin. %It#s normal for newlyweds to take a wedding trip,% he remarked. %I know.% .douard shrugged. %6ut Celli and I agreed we didn#t want to. 1he#s an5ious to start asserting her authority as /ueen and she doesn#t think lea!ing court for a month right now is the best idea. 7aybe we#ll go

somewhere ne5t year.% $e grinned at three of us.%

ieran. %The

ieran chuckled. %That will cause all kinds of talk.% %-ou#re our bodyguard. -ou should be with us.% %(bsolutely no one will buy that.% %That#s why it would be fun. &e#ll definitely ha!e to do it.% .douard pushed up onto his knees and mo!ed off of ieran. %6ut now I think it#s time to really stir things up.% ieran sat up. %7arrying an (mbrea wasn#t enough'% %+o.% .douard ran the fingers of both hands through his hair. %I#m thinking of appointing Clo!is (mbrea to my senior council.% %4eally' &hy'% %( number of reasons.% .douard ticked them off on his fingers. %They are related to the royal family now, so the (mbreas should ha!e a seat on the council9 I want to keep a relati!e of Celli#s at court9 and I spent some time talking to him at the reception last night and I like his ideas.% %6ut emian 3obrick and Curdan 7achura both want seats on the council.% &hile ieran had no real opinion about emian, he seethed at the idea of 7achura being around .douard e!ery day. %I know, but as I said, the si0e of the council isn#t fi5ed. I can put more people on it if I want to.% ( brisk knock at the door was followed by =ustus, who poked his head into the room before coming in all the way. %2ood morning, my lords. I heard you talking so I thought it was time to get you up.% .douard slid out of bed. %1orry to make you wait, =ustus, but we missed each other.% =ustus smiled. %1o I imagined.% $e opened the drapes, flooding the room with brilliant sunshine. %It is a glorious day,% he said. %The perfect day to start a new era in &hite 1hores.% $e picked up .douard#s dressing gown. %&ould you like to bathe'% %-es, please.% .douard slipped into the gown. %Please ha!e our breakfast sent to her ma"esty#s room. &e will be "oining her today.% %-es, sire.% (dditional ser!ants entered the room then, going about their duties as if nothing had changed. ieran followed .douard in the bath, "ust as they always did,

and when they were both clean and dressed, they went down the hall to Celli#s room. 6reakfast was already set up on the table in her sitting room, but the dishes were still co!ered. ( half-do0en maids bustled about the room, dusting, sweeping and fluffing, but one of them stopped when .douard and ieran entered to scurry into Celli#s bedroom. ( moment later, Celli appeared. 1he was neatly dressed in an attracti!e, pale blue gown that emphasi0ed her slim figure. $er long hair was tied back in a neat braid hanging down the middle of her back. 6ut she twisted her hands together ner!ously and bit her lip, not /uite able to meet ieran#s eye. $er uncertainty touched him. $e walked right up to her and put his hands on her shoulders. %2ood morning, Celli,% he said /uietly. %Thank you for understanding how much I missed him.% $e kissed her on the cheek. Celli looked up at him, the uncertainty on her face turning to a smile. %-ou#re welcome.% 6ut then her smile faltered. %Is something the matter'% %I don#t know.% ieran#s brow wrinkled and he touched her cheek. The faint sense of a spell that he had felt when he kissed her became stronger. 6ut whate!er it was, his protection spell had not blocked it, so it couldn#t be harmful, but it still troubled him. %3id you take something'% Celli#s eyes opened wide. %-ou can sense it'% she whispered. $er face filled with dismay. %&hat was it'% ieran demanded. Celli glanced /uickly at .douard. %It was8% 1he bit her lip and looked down. %It was a fertility spell. It was supposed to ensure I concei!ed last night. 7y maid got it for me.% .douard frowned. %&here did she get'% $e stepped closer and touched Celli#s arm. %$ow do we know for certain it was a fertility spell' 3o you ha!e any more of it'% %+o.% Celli looked from one to the other, her eyes filling with fear. %I drank all of it.% 1he looked around the room. %=ean*% she called, beckoning to one of the maids. The young woman had ob!iously o!erheard the con!ersation, because she came forward ner!ously, her hands clutching her feather duster. %3o you ha!e any more of that recipe'%

=ean swallowed. %-es, your ma"esty. The girl who ga!e it to me said I should use all of it, but it seemed like an awful lot, so I "ust used half of it.% $er hands tightened on her duster. %I thought perhaps you might want to use it again.% %2et it,% ieran ordered. %-es, my lord*% =ean dashed into Celli#s bedroom and returned a moment later with a small packet in her hand. %The girl told me it was safe*% she e5claimed as she handed it to ieran. %1he said she knew of many ladies who used it.% %&hat is her name'% ieran asked. %,ela, my lord. 1he#s one of the palace maids. 1he told me she hopes to become one of her ma"esty#s maids.% ieran opened the packet and e5amined the contents. $e recogni0ed many of the herbs, but a strong sense of power wafted off the mi5ture. $e turned to .douard. %I don#t think it#s dangerous, but I can#t tell e5actly what it does. I#ll take it to =onas. $e can tell us what it is.% %Please do so right away,% .douard said. %(nd inform )ord 7oret0. $e can inter!iew that maid while you#re in!estigating the formula.% %I#m sorry*% Celli said unhappily. %I "ust thought this would allow us to achie!e our goals as /uickly as possible.% .douard patted her hand. %Please don#t worry, Celli. ieran says the spell isn#t dangerous, so worst case is nothing happens. (nd I appreciate your thoughts in the matter. (ccelerating the arri!al of royal offspring isn#t a bad idea. )et#s eat breakfast and not worry about it until we ha!e more information. I think your first day as /ueen is going to be busy.% %That#s true,% Celli said. 1he led the way to the table and poured tea for them while the maids unco!ered the ser!ing dishes. %I was thinking I should start by hosting a series of lunches. There are ladies besides $ona 3ou!ram with pet pro"ects and I thought I would let them start trying to win my patronage.% %2ood idea. 6y the way, I#m thinking of appointing your uncle to my senior council. 3o you think he would accept'% Celli stopped in the middle of ser!ing herself a grilled tomato. %>f course he would accept, but is that wise'%

%7aybe not, but I think it#s important not to treat your family any differently than I would another in the same position. It would be an insult not to gi!e them a seat on the council. I reali0e I should know this, but does your uncle ha!e family who will need accommodating'% %1adly, no,% Celli replied. %7y uncle was married, but his wife became emotionally withdrawn when they lost their only son. 1he li!es in a nunnery now. 7y uncle is alone.% %,ery well. I#ll speak to him before he lea!es.% $e ga!e Celli a pointed look. %I do hope your family is planning to stay for a few days.% %They are,% Celli assured him, but she hea!ed a tired sigh. %(lthough it#s anybody#s guess if they will actually lea!e their rooms.% %&ell, I won#t be that demanding,% .douard chuckled. %6ut we#ll ha!e dinner with them this e!ening and I#ll talk to him then.% %(ll right.% ieran didn#t talk much during the meal. .douard and Celli chatted about their plans for the day, but since ieran now intended to go to 6right Isle to see =onas, he didn#t feel like he had much to contribute. (fter breakfast, ieran went to 7oret0#s office to tell him about the fertility spell and then he went down to the docks to go to 6right Isle. $e had already missed the morning ferry, in part because he and .douard had lingered in bed for so long, so he commandeered one of the royal yachts. &hen he arri!ed on the island he went straight to the &i0ards $all, where he simply asked one of the ser!ants to take him to =onas rather than wander around looking for him. 1ince =onas wasn#t an instructor and "ust li!ed on the island, finding him wasn#t necessarily easy. 6ut ieran had learned that the ser!ants always seemed to know where e!erybody was, so asking was always the /uickest way to locate someone. $e found =onas sitting in a garden with a handful of youthful $all residents, playing a game popular with young wi0ards that in!ol!ed changing the color of the feathers on a chicken. ieran had ne!er understood why some people thought this was funny, but this particular group was highly amused by the bright pink feathers the chicken was currently sporting.

% ieran*% =onas e5claimed when he saw him. %I didn#t know you were coming to 6right Isle*% $e stood up and shook ieran#s hand. The other wi0ards also greeted him, but they weren#t yet ready to stop playing their game. %Can I borrow you for a minute, =onas' There#s something I want to show you.% %1ure.% $e and %&hat is it'% ieran stepped away from the others.

ieran took the fertility spell out of his pocket. %&hat can you tell me about this'% =onas opened the packet and poked at the contents curiously with a fingertip. %It#s a fertility spell,% he said, his face fi5ed in concentration. %It#s weird, though.% $e stirred the contents, turning the herbs o!er. %It#s a standard formula, I#!e seen do0ens like it, but there#s something else in here.% %Is it dangerous'% %+o,% =onas shook his head slowly. %Its main function seems to be to greatly enhance the power of the spell.% $e closed the packet and handed it back. %This is an herbal recipe for making a woman concei!e during coupling. It won#t o!ercome barrenness and probably would not work on an older woman who#s approaching the end of her child-bearing years. 6ut that magical enhancement would increase its potency a lot. ( woman using this would need to be !ery careful about how much she consumed, because it might cause her to concei!e multiple times.% ieran frowned. %-ou mean ha!e twins'% %>r worse.% ieran looked down at the packet in his hand, suddenly !ery worried. %$ow much would be too much, in your opinion'% =onas pursed his lips. %I wouldn#t gi!e anyone more than half of what#s in there.% ieran#s stomach sank. Celli had already consumed twice what =onas recommended. %&ould there be any danger to the woman or her pregnancy if she did concei!e multiple times from this'% %+o more than normal,% =onas said. The image of Celli#s slender hips stuck in ieran#s mind. $e swallowed. %Thank you, =onas. &ould it be possible for you to find out who made this'%

%I think so. There are only a handful of apothecaries in &hite 1hores who sell fertility spells. I can probably track it down.% ieran handed him the packet again. %Please do so, and let me know what you find out right away. I want to know what that enhancement is. If you need help, ask Tank. $e always lo!es a pu00le.% %1ure thing.% =onas took the packet. %&hat#s going on'% %I#d rather not say right now,% ieran said. %=ust please do this as soon as possible.% %(ll right.% &hen he got back from 6right Isle that afternoon, ieran went to the office formerly occupied by 3octor 1efrin, which was "ust outside the palace infirmary. +ow that the doctor had finally retired and mo!ed out, his replacement, 7aura >lgin, had taken o!er. 3octor >lgin was older than ieran, but she didn#t look it. $er youthful face belied the e5perience of middle-age that had earned her the co!eted rank of 4oyal Physician. 6ut she presented a !ery professional demeanor in her long coat. 1he kept her light brown hair trimmed short around her round face, which was dominated by her bright blue eyes. The door to her office was open, but the gap and knocked on the frame. ieran stopped in

7aura looked up from her desk with a bright smile. %2ood day, )ord ieran. This is an une5pected surprise.% %3o you ha!e a moment, 3octor'% %>f course, please come in.% 7aura sat back and watched him curiously as he stepped in and closed the door. %3octor, something has occurred which I feel should be brought to your attention.% ieran took a seat in front of her desk. %$er ma"esty used a fertility drug last night, but the drug was enhanced with some kind of magical power that greatly increased its efficacy.% 7aura#s brows pulled down. %I wish she had talked to me first* $uman fertility is easier to disrupt than promote.% %I ha!e no doubt that this particular spell will work as intended,% ieran said, %and that#s my concern. This spell is more powerful than her ma"esty reali0ed and

there#s a chance it may cause a multiple-conception pregnancy.% %$er ma"esty is !ery slender,% 7aura remarked with concern. %Twins might be an issue for her.% ieran nodded. %That#s why I wanted you to know. If there#s anything you can do to prepare her, it might be better to start thinking about it now.% %I will. Thank you for telling me, )ord ieran.% 7aura paused. %3o you think her ma"esty will be offended if I approach her about it'% %I don#t think so, but please gi!e me the chance to talk to her first.% ieran drew a /uick breath. %1he didn#t intend for this to happen. 1he doesn#t know about the possible effects of the spell.% 7aura nodded. %,ery well, but don#t take too long. I will want to e5amine her as soon as possible.% %I understand.% ieran stood up. %Thank you, 3octor. I#ll talk to Celli right away, so you can plan to meet with her tomorrow.% %2ood. I#ll do that. 2ood afternoon, )ord %2ood afternoon, 3octor.% ieran felt a little better after talking to 3octor >lgin, but now he had to face Celli. $e paused for a moment to locate Celli through his connection to her. $e was relie!ed when he determined that she was in her rooms, but a little surprised when he reali0ed that she was alone. &hen he arri!ed at her door, her guards came to attention. %$er ma"esty is resting, my lord,% one told him. %Is she ill'% ieran asked worriedly. %I don#t think so, my lord. 1he "ust said she was tired and wanted to lie down for a little while.% ieran nodded. %I need to speak with her.% The guards stepped aside without a word and ieran entered her suite. Two maids were in the sitting room sewing and ieran recogni0ed one of them as the girl =ean. $e assumed the other girl was the second maid that Celli had brought with her from home. They both rose and offered him /uick curtsies. %$er ma"esty is resting, my lord,% =ean whispered loudly. %I know,% ieran answered, %but I need to speak to her. It#s important.% =ean flushed. %Is it about8 about the spell'% ieran.%

%-es, but do not blame yourself, =ean. -our intentions were good.% =ean dropped her eyes. %I don#t know what I#ll do if something happens to her ma"esty* I#!e ser!ed her since we were both girls.% ieran almost smiled. In his opinion, neither of them was much more than a girl now. %Please try not to worry.% $e went past them and entered Celli#s bedroom. The drapes were closed and it was dim, but he knew Celli was not sleeping. 1he turned o!er and lifted her head when he entered. %&hat is it'% %I#m sorry to bother you, Celli,% should talk.% ieran said, %but we

Celli sat up, her co!erlet clutched to her chest. %Is it about that spell'% %-es.% ieran sat down on the edge of her bed. %It was a standard fertility spell in most respects, but it was much more powerful than normal.% Celli co!ered her mouth with one hand. %&hat does that mean'% %&ell, for one thing it means that it probably worked.% %-ou mean I might be pregnant'% %-es,% ieran drew a breath. %6ut the concern is that you might be pregnant with more than one child.% %Twins'% Celli breathed. $er hands dropped into her lap. %$opefully, no more than that,% ieran said. Celli paled. %I#!e already talked to 3octor >lgin and she is planning to e5amine you tomorrow. I think we shouldn#t tell anyone else about this for the moment,% he continued. %I#ll tell .douard, but until we know for sure one way or another, I don#t think anyone else should know.% Celli nodded, her hands twisting into her co!erlet. %-ou must think I am !ery foolish,% she whispered. %+o, I don#t,% ieran replied. $e reached out and caught her hands in his. %-ou were thinking of me and .douard when you chose to use magic and I respect you for that. I won#t let anything happen to you, trust me.% $e held Celli#s ga0e until she drew a shaking breath and nodded. %Thank you, ieran. I "ust hope I ha!en#t made a mess of e!erything.%

%+othing bad has happened yet,% ieran said encouragingly. $e ga!e her a warm smile. %(nd the good news is you are probably already pregnant. The blood tie that will ensure your family#s future may already be on its way.% Celli returned his smile. %That is a good thought. I will hold on to that and not worry about the rest for now.% They sat there in the semi-darkness smiling at each other. &ith her hands under his, ieran could feel the warm pulse of her life glowing under her skin. $e reali0ed that if she was pregnant, he would probably be able to sense the child in her womb when it started to grow. $e released her and sat back. %I#m going to talk to .douard now. -ou should get some rest. 1oon enough, I think you#ll need it.% %(pparently*% Celli touched her hands to her belly. %I wonder when I#ll be able to tell.% ieran slipped off the bed. %1oon, I#m sure. (re you going to sleep now'% %I don#t know if I can.% ieran leaned o!er and touched her forehead. %2o to sleep, Celli,% he murmured. %-ou will be well rested when you wake.% $e watched as Celli lay back down, already captured by the effects of his spell. $er eyes closed and her breathing sank into the rhythm of slumber. $e ga0ed at her for a moment longer, wondering why it made him happy to think of .douard#s child growing inside her. $e brushed the hair from her face and pulled her co!erlet up o!er her shoulders. %I won#t let anything happen to you, Celli. -ou are too much a part of my life, now.% -o-o-o-o-oThe maid ,ela was ob!iously /uite frightened at being summoned by the 4oyal &i0ard. &hen the guard brought her into his office, she stood there "ust inches in front of the guard#s broad chest with her hands clasped tightly in front of her, her eyes round with fear. 7oret0 decided to get right to the point. %>ne of her ma"esty#s maids said you ga!e her a fertility spell for the /ueen to use on her wedding night.% %-es, honored sir, I did.% 7oret0 lifted an eyebrow. The fact that she used that particular form of address told him "ust how frightened she was. &hile it was common for ser!ants outside

the palace to use that honorific, palace residents tended to stick with #my lord# or #my lady#. %&hy'% ,ela twisted her hands together. %&ell, e!eryone knows his ma"esty prefers )ord ieran#s company, so I thought she would want to concei!e a child /uickly.% %Is that why you suggested she use the entire dose'% %That#s what I was told she should do.% 7oret0 sat back. %1omeone ga!e you the spell'% %-es, honored sir. 7iss &oolden ga!e it to me. 1he said if I offered it to the /ueen, she might be grateful enough to appoint me to her staff.% %Caren &oolden'% %-es, honored sir.% 7oret0 tapped a finger on his desk. %(nd it was 7iss &oolden who told you her ma"esty should use the entire dose'% ,ela nodded /uickly. %3id 7iss &oolden gi!e a reason for ha!ing the fertility spell in the first place, or had she obtained it specifically for the /ueen'% ,ela bit her lip. %I think she bought it for herself, honored sir. 1he#s engaged and it#s not uncommon for ladies to use a fertility spell in arranged marriages, so they don#t ha!e to spend too much time with their husbands.% 7oret0 blinked in surprise. %It#s common'% %-es, honored sir, especially for ladies whose husbands prefer men.% 7oret0 was momentarily dumbfounded. $e clearly knew too little about the li!es of noblewomen. Then her statement struck him and for a second he couldn#t think of anything to say. &as she referring to .douard or Caren#s fiancE, emian 3obrick, as someone who prefers men' $e cleared his throat. %Thank you, ,ela. That will be all.% $e nodded slightly to the guard and the man grasped ,ela#s elbow, ushering her back out into the hall. %1hall I fetch 7iss &oolden'% the guard asked when ,ela was gone. %+ot yet,% 7oret0 replied. %I want to find out what ieran learned about that spell first. 6ut do locate her and make sure she doesn#t lea!e the palace.% %-es, my lord.%

It was late in the afternoon when ieran arri!ed at his office. 7oret0 took one look at his face and frowned. %It#s not good, is it'% %Possibly,% ieran said. $e plopped down in a chair in front of 7oret0#s desk. %(ccording to =onas, that spell is strong enough to cause twinning, or worse. I talked to 3octor >lgin and she isn#t happy at the prospect of Celli carrying twins. &e#re fortunate =ean only ga!e her half of the formula. If she#d used it all, Celli might !ery likely be facing triplets, or e!en /uadruplets. (s it is, I think it !ery likely she#s going to ha!e twins. 3id you talk to the maid'% %-es. 1he got the spell from Caren &oolden.% %4eally'% 7oret0 nodded. %1he thinks Caren bought the spell for herself, but I ha!e my doubts.% %$a!e you talked to her yet'% %+o, I was waiting for you.% 7oret0 scowled. %6ut the maid said Caren was the one who instructed her that the entire packet should be used.% ieran drummed his fingers on his knee. %If she knew how powerful that spell is, she knew telling Celli to use it all would potentially put her life and the li!es of her babies in "eopardy.% %)et#s talk to her before we "ump to that conclusion,% 7oret0 said. %,ery well,% purpose...% ieran agreed. %6ut if she did it on

%.douard will throw her in prison without a second thought,% 7oret0 concluded. Chapter 11: !otions and !owders 3octor >lgin wasn#t terribly interested in Celli#s modesty during her e5amination. 1he poked, prodded, palpated and listened to Celli pretty much all o!er, insisting that Celli remo!e any clothing that got in the way. &hen she was finished, Celli felt more intimately in!aded than she had after her wedding night. %(m I all right, 3octor'% %I didn#t find anything I didn#t e5pect for a maiden who has recently gi!en up her innocence,% 7aura replied absently. 1he made careful notes in a small notebook before looking up with a smile. %I don#t think you ha!e anything to worry about for the moment. 6ut I am going to recommend to his ma"esty that you

refrain from further intimacy until we ha!e more information about the fertility spell you used.% Celli blinked worriedly. %3o you think it might be dangerous'% %+o.% 7aura shook her head. %6ut according to )ord ieran, that fertility spell was !ery strong. It may not ha!e worn off yet, which means if you are intimate with the king again, you might concei!e again. &e can#t risk that.% %>h.% Celli pressed her lips together unhappily. %I know I should ha!e talked to you first, 3octor >lgin, but I wanted to become pregnant as soon as possible.% 7aura sighed. %I understand, your ma"esty. -ou aren#t the only noblewoman to choose this path. 6ut we will handle whate!er happens, rest assured.% 1he packed away her instruments. %6ut I want you to inform me right away if anything feels odd to you.% %-es, 3octor.% Celli followed 3octor >lgin back into her sitting room and was surprised to find her mother waiting there. %Is e!erything all right, Celli'% (lthea asked, rising from her seat on the larger of the two couches. %-es, 7other,% Celli said, managing a disarming smile. %It was "ust a routine e5amination.% %I#m glad to hear it.% (lthea watched 3octor >lgin lea!e and then she stepped closer to Celli. %Is that the truth'% she asked in a low !oice, pitched so that the handful of maids in the room would not o!erhear. %-es, it#s the truth*% Celli wrinkled her nose in a display of amused annoyance. 1he really did not want her mother to know what she#d done. 1he was not in the mood for a lecture. %$as :ncle Clo!is decided if he will accept .douard#s offer to "oin his senior council'% %-es,% (lthea nodded. %&e discussed it and agreed that it is a good mo!e for the family. $e will ha!e to deal with unpleasant reactions, I#m sure, but no more than you ha!e, I imagine.% Celli rolled her eyes. %$e may be surprised,% she said. %( few gentlemen ha!e been seeking seats on the senior council for some time now. I daresay they will be /uite offended at being bypassed in my uncle#s fa!or.% %6ut our relationship with the royal family entitles us to a seat*%

%-es, it does,% Celli agreed, %but that perfectly reasonable argument is bound to fall on deaf ears.% 1he rubbed her hands together. %+ow then, will you "oin me for luncheon today' I will be dining with )ady 3ou!ram and some other ladies to discuss my new rebuilding commission.% (lthea suppressed a frown. %I suppose I should. &ill there be any wi0ards there'% %+o, "ust noblewomen.% %,ery well.% (lthea drew herself up. %I will try to con!ince 7ira to "oin us. Perhaps it will lift her spirits.% Celli found that hard to imagine, but she hoped her mother might be right. 1he walked (lthea to the door and bid her good day, but once the door was closed behind her, Celli let her shoulders slump. 1he was tired and dreaded spending the day sociali0ing, but she had already taken an afternoon off. 1he could not afford to do so again. %=ean, will you please help me get ready for my lunch engagement'% %-es, your ma"esty.% =ean followed Celli back into her bedroom, trailed by .sther. The two young women helped Celli dress and did her hair. &hen they were finished, Celli e5amined her appearance in the mirror. It always surprised her a little bit how regal she appeared. 6ut appearance was important. 1he had to look the part of /ueen if she wanted to command the respect she deser!ed in her new role. )ifting her chin, she prepared to go out. It was going to be a long day. -o-o-o-o-o-o=onas did not go into &hite 1hores often. (s the resident e5pert in detecting and recogni0ing spells, he tended to remain in the $all so he was readily a!ailable when his skills were re/uired. 6ut acting on ieran#s orders ga!e him a legitimate reason to spend the day in the city and he was kind of e5cited about it. There were se!en apothecaries that he knew of that sold fertility drugs, but the first store he !isited had stopped, so he /uickly mo!ed on to the second. This store was empty of customers when he entered. The middle-aged male clerk standing behind the counter greeted him with a ner!ous bow. %2ood day, honored sir* $ow may I be of ser!ice'% %3o you sell a fertility drug'% %-es, honored sir*%

%I would like to e5amine your formula, if you don#t mind.% %>f course, honored sir*% The clerk retrie!ed a small canister from the shel!es behind him. %&e only keep a small amount on hand,% he said apologetically. %It goes stale !ery /uickly.% $e opened the canister, which was only half full. =onas sniffed the contents and touched it with his senses. The formula was !ery similar to the one he was looking for, but it contained no magical enhancement. %I know most apothecaries include cottonseed, but I find it can upset a woman#s stomach.% $e shrugged slightly. %6ut unfortunately, it loses its efficacy faster without the cottonseed.% %I see.% =onas straightened up. %Thank you for your time.% $e left and continued on to the ne5t shop. +either of the ne5t two apothecaries had formulas that matched and, like the first store, kept only small amounts of the fertility drug on hand because of its short shelf life. &hen he arri!ed at the ne5t shop, which was on a side street close to one of the market s/uares, two young noblewomen were lea!ing as he approached. %.5cuse me, ladies. 3o you patroni0e this apothecary often'% $e had not seen any nobles at any of his pre!ious stops. %-es, my lord*% one of the young women answered with a giggle. %They ha!e the best formulas*% The other girl nodded /uickly. %I see. Thank you.% =onas entered the store curiously. This one, unlike the pre!ious three, was fairly crowded, but that might ha!e been because they also sold sweets. 6oth nobles and commoners e5amined the displays of candies eagerly. The long counter at the back of the store was manned by fi!e busy clerks, but one of them /uickly e5cused himself when he saw =onas and came to greet him at the door. %2ood day, honored sir* 7ay I help you'% %-es, do you sell a fertility drug'% %-es, we do.% %I would like to e5amine it.% %>f course, honored sir. Please come this way.% The clerk led him back to the counter and went behind it to take down a fat canister. The canister was easily four times as large as the "ars used by any of the

other three stores. =onas blinked in surprise when the canister pro!ed to be almost completely full. 4ight away he could tell the scent of the formula was right. 6ut he e5amined it with his senses anyway to !erify what he already suspected. It was the right formula. The sense of magic imparted by the unknown enhancement radiated strongly. %3o you sell a lot of this'% %&e sell a fair amount,% the young man replied. %It is e5tremely effecti!e in helping infertile women concei!e.% %6ut I understand a lot of noblewomen buy it.% The clerk frowned slightly. %That#s true, but we really don#t recommend it for fertile women. The formula is !ery strong.% $e leaned forward slightly and lowered his !oice. %( fertile woman might ha!e twins, you see. In those cases, I will usually sell the woman a halfportion and then recommend that she take half the dose and wait to see if she misses her cycle. If not, then she can take the rest of the dose about a week after her cycle ends and she will in!ariably concei!e.% %$m.% =onas nodded slowly. &hat the clerk was saying matched what his talent told him about the spell. $e took the packet out of his pocket. %$ow much of a dose is this'% The clerk looked in the packet. %That#s about a standard half-dose.% %&hat is the magical enhancement in this fertility spell'% The clerk flushed. %I#m sorry, I don#t really know. &e buy all our formulas from an agent who !isits &hite 1hores about e!ery three months. I was told that the enhancement increases the effecti!eness and lifespan of our spells and potions.% =onas# eyes widened. %-our formulas remain efficacious for three months'* That#s !ery unusual*% $e scanned the shel!es behind the clerk. %3o all of those formulas contain this enhancement'% %7ost of them.% %I#d like to buy three spells containing enhancement. It doesn#t matter what they are.% the

%:h, !ery well, honored sir.% &ith a confused look on his face, the clerk took down three more canisters and measured out doses into paper en!elopes. %That will be fourteen sil!er coins, honored sir,% he said

ner!ously. $e was ob!iously uncomfortable charging a wi0ard for spells, e!en herbal spells.

at

=onas handed o!er the money without a word and pocketed his purchase. $e was an5ious to take the formulas back to Tank for study, but since he was already in the city, he decided to go to the palace and tell ieran what he had learned. &hen he arri!ed, he asked a page to take him to ieran and the youth took him to )ord 7oret0#s office. $e knocked sharply on the door and entered at 7oret0#s call. %=onas*% ieran e5claimed. %I hope you#!e brought information.% %I ha!e,% =onas replied. $e took the other chair in front of 7oret0#s desk. %I found the shop that sold that fertility spell. (pparently, they buy all their spells from an agent and most of them contain that magical enhancement we couldn#t identify. I bought se!eral more formulas for Tank to test.% %2ood idea,% 7oret0 said. %3id you learn anything more about that spell'% %The clerk knew the formula was !ery strong,% =onas replied. %$e said he doesn#t recommend it for fertile women.% %4eally'% %-es. $e said a large dose might cause a fertile woman to ha!e twins.% 7oret0 and ieran e5changed a look. =onas sat forward. %&hat#s going on'% he demanded. %&ho used this spell'% ieran drew a deep breath. %$er ma"esty. 1he used it on her wedding night. The amount she was gi!en was twice what I showed you, but fortunately her maid only ga!e her half of it.% %&hat'% =onas# brow wrinkled. %-ou mean what you showed me was half of what she took'*% %-es.% %6ut8% =onas sank back in his seat. %That#s twice what I recommended, which is also what the clerk told me.% $e looked from ieran to 7oret0. %If her ma"esty used a dose that strong, she will almost certainly ha!e twins.% ieran and 7oret0 both nodded. %That#s what we think, too,% ieran said with resignation. %6ut who ga!e it to her'% =onas e5claimed.

%Caren &oolden, but we don#t know why.% 7oret0 drummed his fingers on his desk. %&e ha!e "ust been discussing how to inter!iew her. If she bought the drug herself, would the clerk ha!e told her how strong it is'% %(bsolutely,% =onas said. %&hich means she knew telling Celli to take all of it would put her life at risk when she concei!ed multiple times,% ieran concluded. $is e5pression darkened. %+o matter what she tells us in the inter!iew, .douard has to be told. (n attack on Celli is the same as an attack on him.% 7oret0 nodded. %I understand. 6ut look, I think it would be better if I talked to her alone.% %(ll right, but I still want to be here,% ieran said. $e gestured toward the corner. %I#ll stand o!er there and wear a glamour.% %,ery well.% %7ay I stay, too'% =onas asked. %I would be curious to know if she#s used any other products from that store on herself.% %That#s a good idea,% 7oret0 said. %-ou can stand with ieran. I#ll send for her now.% -o-o-o-oCaren &oolden entered 7oret0#s office with a calm e5pression, which immediately made ieran suspicious. .!en if she knew why she had been summoned, she should still ha!e been ner!ous. %Please sit down, 7iss &oolden,% 7oret0 said. %Thank you, my lord.% Caren took the offered seat and regarded 7oret0 with a rela5ed smile. %7iss &oolden, did you gi!e one of the palace maids a fertility spell with instructions to pass it on to <ueen Celli'% %-es, I did.% Caren#s calm answer brought a frown to ieran#s face, but he remained silent. %&hy'% Caren smiled slightly. %2i!en her situation, I assumed she would want to get pregnant /uickly, but since she is new to &hite 1hores, I thought she might not know where to get an herbal remedy.% %I see.% 7oret0 tapped a finger against his chin. %3id you buy the drug yourself'%

%-es.% 7oret0 sat back. %I understand you#re engaged to be married yourself, 7iss &oolden.% Caren#s brow wrinkled slightly, but her !oice remained calm when she answered. %That#s correct. I am engaged to emian 3obrick.% %&ho arranged that'% Caren flinched and ieran blinked in surprise. It was not a /uestion he had been e5pecting, and from her reaction, neither had Caren. %I beg your pardon'% Caren said. %I apologi0e for being blunt, 7iss &oolden, but you ha!e no family. &ho approached the 3obrick family in your behalf'% Caren swallowed. %I don#t see how that is rele!ant.% %4ele!ant to what, 7iss &oolden'% 7oret0 sharply. %-ou don#t know why I sent for you.% said

%I thought8% 1he hesitated and her e5pression became pu00led. %I thought you wanted to ask about the fertility spell.% 7oret0 leaned forward, pinning her with his ga0e. %Please answer my /uestion. &ho arranged your engagement to emian 3obrick'% Caren did not answer for se!eral heartbeats. %Curdan 7achura,% she finally answered. 7oret0 ga!e no indication that her response might ha!e been surprising. %&hy would he do that' &as he close to your mother'% %+o.% Caren looked down and her ner!ousness became more pronounced. %$e did it as a fa!or to his daughter.% %-ou and 7ichia 7achura are friends'% %-es.% %&as it your idea or 7ichia#s to gi!e her ma"esty the fertility spell'% Caren started. %It was mine*% she said /uickly. %7ichia and I talked about me using a fertility spell when I got married, and I thought her ma"esty might want to use one for the same reason.% %&here did you buy the spell'% %(t an apothecary near the big market s/uare.%

%I charge you to be completely honest with me, 7iss &oolden,% 7oret0 said sternly. %3id you buy the spell yourself or did 7ichia 7achura buy it'% Caren twisted her hands together. %7ichia was with me when I bought it. 1he shops at that store all the time.% %&ho talked to the clerk'% %:h8% Caren blinked /uickly. %I#m not sure what you mean.% 7oret0 folded his hands together in front of him and spoke !ery clearly. %3id you or did 7iss 7achura speak to the clerk about the purchase'% %-ou don#t understand*% Caren e5claimed. %I ha!e !ery little money* I couldn#t afford the spell myself, so 7ichia bought it for me, but we got it for me* It was only later that I thought of gi!ing it to the /ueen.% %3id you talk to the clerk about how to use the fertility spell'% Caren#s cheeks colored. %+o. I was embarrassed. 7ichia told me.% %&hat did she say'% %&ell, we didn#t talk about it until later.% Caren shifted uncomfortably in the chair. %&hose idea was it to gi!e the spell to <ueen Celli'% 7oret0 demanded abruptly. %It was mine* I told you*% %&as it really'% 7oret0 sat back. %7iss &oolden, I ha!e to tell you that there are se!eral aspects to your story that I find incongruous. 3id you instruct the maid to tell <ueen Celli to use the entire dose you pro!ided'% %-es* That#s what I was told* 7ichia said using the whole packet would ensure she got pregnant*% %3id she specifically say to use it all at once'% %I8% Caren stopped in mid-sentence. %I don#t remember.% The calm look she had worn when she walked in was completely gone. %I "ust assumed that#s what she meant.% %I see.% 7oret0 regarded her silently for a moment. Caren stared back at him, blinking ner!ously. %3id she tell you how to use the fertility spell before or after you discussed gi!ing it to her ma"esty'% Caren bit her lip. %It was after,% she replied faintly.

%Thank you, 7iss &oolden. That will be all.% 7oret0 stood up. Caren rose hastily. %$a!e I done something wrong, )ord 7oret0'% %+ot intentionally, it would appear, 7iss &oolden. $owe!er, I en"oin you not to lea!e the palace for the time being. I may need to speak to you again.% %-es, my lord.% Caren dipped her head in ac/uiescence. 7oret0 held the door for her and she hurried out, her demeanor a far cry from the calm confidence she had displayed on entering. ieran dropped his glamour as the door closed. %I find it interesting that she didn#t get rattled until you asked about her engagement.% %1he didn#t want us to know about her relationship with the 7achuras,% 7oret0 guessed. %1o it would seem.% ieran crossed his arms. %6ut from the sound of it, she had no idea that spell was dangerously strong. I wonder if 7ichia e!en planned to tell her before she used it on herself.% 7oret0 nodded. %6ut more to the point9 was the whole thing 7ichia#s idea to begin with'% ieran wa!ed a hand. %It doesn#t matter. 1he spoke to the clerk, which means she knew how the spell should be used, but she didn#t tell Caren when the decision was made to gi!e it to Celli. In my opinion, 7ichia did this on purpose, with the e5press intent of causing Celli to concei!e multiple times. It would be up to a soothsayer to decide if she planned it with the hope that Celli would subse/uently die during childbirth.% $e glanced at =onas before returning his ga0e to 7oret0. %&e should tell his ma"esty what we#!e learned. (lthough a spell was used, this is a secular matter in!ol!ing a high-ranking noble family. It falls under the "urisdiction of the royal court.% 7oret0 nodded. %I agree.% $e turned to =onas. %Thank you for your assistance, =onas. -ou#!e been e5tremely helpful.% %-ou#re most welcome, )ord 7oret0,% =onas replied. %I "ust hope her ma"esty will be all right.% %&e will take the utmost care of her,% ieran said. $e smiled grimly. %1he#s carrying the heirs to the throne.% Chapter1?: "e#astating Truth ;aced by .douard, 7oret0 and ieran all together, Caren &oolden had none of the calm demeanor she

had displayed initially in 7oret0#s office. 1he stared back at them in wide-eyed alarm, her hands clutched together in her lap as she sat stiffly on the straightbacked chair in front of .douard#s desk. .douard was seated at his desk, leaning forward on his folded arms, his e5pression unreadable. ieran and 7oret0 stood on either side of his desk, looking down at the frightened young noblewoman. %-ou are not yet charged with any crime, 7iss &oolden,% .douard said, %but I urge you to answer our /uestions with the utmost honesty.% %>f course, your ma"esty,% she replied faintly. %&hy did you buy the fertility spell'% %I planned to use it on myself.% %&hy'% Caren flushed. %I will be entering an arranged marriage in the fall,% she said, her !oice trembling with embarrassment. %I don#t know )ord 3obrick !ery well, so I thought...% she trailed off, her blush deepening. %&hy then did you decide to gi!e the spell to her ma"esty'% Caren stared down at her hands and mumbled something inaudible. %Please speak more clearly, 7iss &oolden,% .douard said without much sympathy. 1he swallowed. %$er ma"esty#s situation seemed worse than mine,% she said more loudly. %(t least my betrothed does not ha!e a lo!er.% %1o you ga!e her the spell out of sympathy'% %-es.% %)ord 7oret0 told me you bought the spell with 7ichia 7achura#s assistance.% %That is correct.% %(nd it was later that you discussed gi!ing it to the /ueen.% %-es.% %7iss &oolden, are you aware that the dosage you were gi!en was meant to be consumed o!er se!eral weeks'% Caren#s eyes went completely round. %&hat'*% 1he looked so stunned that ieran did not doubt for a moment that she had not known. %6ut 7ichia said to

take the whole dose...% she began, and then put a hand o!er her mouth in horrified reali0ation. %&as her ma"esty in"ured'% she whispered. %+o,% .douard said shortly. $e ob!iously did not intend to elaborate. %$owe!er, I am concerned that her ma"esty might ha!e been gi!en this spell with the intent to cause her harm.% Caren /uickly shook her head, her hand dropping back into her lap, where it clasped the other one tightly. %That was ne!er my intention, your ma"esty, I swear* I really was "ust trying to help*% .douard nodded slowly. %,ery well, 7iss &oolden. I accept your e5planation. I charge you not to discuss any of this with anyone. &hile your intention may ha!e been innocent, I am troubled that 7iss 7achura was not more forthright in her e5planation of how the spell should be used.% %I#m so sorry, your ma"esty*% Caren said. Taking .douard#s admonition of silence as dismissal, she stood up. %&ill there be anything else'% she asked hesitantly. %That will be all, thank you.% &hen Caren was gone, .douard sat back with a noisy sigh. %This whole thing could ha!e "ust been a stupid accident.% %.5cept for the fact that the clerk at the apothecary shop would ha!e told 7ichia how to use the spell,% ieran pointed out. %I know,% .douard ran his fingers through his hair. %&e need to talk to her. )et#s do it now, because I seriously doubt Caren will not talk to her about this. (t the !ery least, she may want to know if 7ichia planned to tell her the correct way to use the spell.% %,ery well,% 7oret0 replied. $e stepped to the door and poked his head out %2raelin, please send two men to bring 7ichia 7achura here.% %-es, my lord.% 2raelin#s response was muffled, because 7oret0 was already closing the door. %&hat will we do if this was all "ust a foolish mistake'% 7oret0 said. %3o we want it known ahead of time that her ma"esty might be carrying twins'% %7istake or not,% .douard said, %Celli#s condition will be kept pri!ate until we know for certain.% $e scowled. %It takes weeks for a conception to make itself known. :ntil 3octor >lgin tells me she is e5pecting twins, I#m going to hope for the best.%

.douard fell silent while they waited for 7ichia and ieran watched his face. $e looked more irritated than angry, making ieran wonder if he belie!ed it might really ha!e "ust been the result of Caren#s mistaken understanding. ieran might ha!e belie!ed that himself if 7ichia had not been in!ol!ed. $e simply did not trust her. &hen the young noblewoman arri!ed with her escort of two glowering guards, she wore a look of haughty defiance. %1it down, 7iss 7achura,% .douard said as soon as she was in the room, indicating the same chair where Caren had been seated. 7ichia mo!ed stiffly to the chair and sat down, !ery pointedly not making eye contact with ieran. 1he did glance briefly at 7oret0, but when she was seated, she fi5ed .douard with an e5pectant ga0e. %&ill this take !ery long, your ma"esty' I ha!e a dinner engagement.% %7iss 7achura, why did your father arrange a marriage between Caren &oolden and emian 3obrick'% .douard asked sharply in response. 7ichia blinked in surprise. %$e felt sorry for her. 1he has nothing, you know,% 7ichia added condescendingly. ieran bristled silently. The fact that Caren had nothing was the result of treachery against .douard. %I#m well aware of 7iss &oolden#s financial status,% .douard replied with only a trace of irritation in his !oice. %&as she a friend of yours prior to her mother committing treason'% 7ichia flinched backward slightly. 1he appeared surprised that .douard would be so blunt. %&e were ac/uainted,% she said slowly. %6ut we became closer o!er the past few years.% %I see.% .douard glanced at 7oret0. 7oret0 crossed his arms. %7iss 7achura, do you often buy spells at the apothecary near the large market s/uare'% %-es, I shop there all the time.% 7ichia brushed her hair back o!er her shoulder with a flipping motion. %Their spells last longer.% 1he pursed her lips. %&hat is this about'% %-ou bought a fertility spell for Caren &oolden,% 7oret0 stated flatly.

%>h, that.% 7ichia rolled her eyes. %Caren was too embarrassed to ask the clerk for it herself, so I had to do it. &hat a bother*% %3id the clerk tell you how it should be used'% %>f course,% 7ichia answered with an annoyed frown. %1omething about di!iding the dose up and taking it o!er two or three weeks.% %3id you tell Caren that'% 7ichia shrugged. %Probably. I know we talked about it when she said she wanted to gi!e it to the /ueen.% %7iss 7achura,% 7oret0 said, his !oice growing stern, %I urge you to recall your e5act words. &hat did you say when you told Caren how to use the spell'% %I don#t remember*% 7ichia#s brows drew down. %I think I said be sure to tell her ma"esty to use the whole dose.% )istening to 7ichia speak, ieran at first had the impression that she was being truthful. 6ut when he heard her last statement, he suddenly stiffened. Celli had been at court long enough for her antipathy for magic to become known. If anyone had thought about it, they would ha!e reali0ed that she would ha!e no familiarity with using herbal spells. If 7ichia suspected this and made such an off-hand comment about using the whole dose to Caren, knowing that she would relay it, she would almost certainly ha!e reali0ed that she was "eopardi0ing Celli#s pregnancy. %.douard,% ieran interrupted, %I think 7iss 7achura should be placed in custody until a soothsayer can be summoned.% %&hat'*% 7ichia e5claimed. %&hy'% .douard said in almost the same breath. %Celli doesn#t know anything about herbal spells and neither would her maid. &ithout e5plicit directions, they would almost certainly use it incorrectly.% ieran pinned 7ichia with his ga0e. %I would like to know if 7iss 7achura was counting on their ignorance.% 7ichia#s mouth worked silently for se!eral heartbeats. %That#s ridiculous*% she finally e5claimed. %I#m a noblewoman* -ou can#t make me submit to a soothsaying without filing charges of some kind*% ieran leaned toward her. %That can be arranged.% %-ou wouldn#t dare* 7y father8%

%I concur with )ord ieran#s assessment,% 7oret0 interrupted gra!ely. %:nder the circumstances, 7iss 7achura#s word alone is insufficient. I also recommend use of a soothsayer to !erify the truth of her statements.% %,ery well,% .douard said. %7iss 7achura, I remand you into the custody of Captain 1oleson. I#m sure he can find someplace more comfortable than the prison in which to hold you until such time as we can arrange for a soothsaying.% %-ou can#t do this*% 7ichia looked from one to the other in rising panic. 1he "umped to her feet. %I want to see my father*% %I will send for him, 7iss 7achura,% .douard said. % ieran, will you go get Captain 1oleson'% %-es, my lord.% ieran trotted out of .douard#s office. There were a handful of people in the waiting area and they stared curiously as ieran went by, but he ignored them. $e hurried to 1oleson#s office and knocked on the door. %.nter*% ieran went in. %Captain, his ma"esty would like you to attend him in his office.% %>h' &hat is it'% %I#ll let him tell you,% ieran answered. 1oleson made a face. %It can#t be good if you won#t tell me.% $e pushed to his feet. %)ead the way.% 6ack at .douard#s office, ieran wished he had told 2raelin to dismiss e!eryone until later. &atching him return with 1oleson, the people in the waiting area began whispering to each other e5citedly. :ndoubtedly, some of them had seen 7ichia taken into .douard#s office under guard. +ow with Captain 1oleson arri!ing, they knew something interesting was happening. Inside, 7ichia was still standing in front of the chair, her face pale and her eyes damp. 1he had a handkerchief clutched in one hand. .douard was standing in front of his desk with his arms crossed, only a few paces away from her. %Thank you for coming, Captain,% he said. %I#m placing 7iss 7achura under arrest until )ady (mrisen can come o!er and hear her deposition. 1he is not to ha!e !isitors e5cept for her father.% %,ery well, sire,% 1oleson said. $e ga!e 7ichia an appraising look. %I#ll put her in a holding cell. Those

aren#t the best accommodations for a lady, but I ha!en#t anything any better.% %It will do for the time being,% .douard said. %It should only be for a night or two.% %-our ma"esty*% 7ichia interrupted desperately. %Can#t I "ust be confined in my room'% %+o,% .douard replied shortly. %I#m planning to ha!e your rooms searched.% %1earched'* &hy'% %To see what else you ha!e been buying at the apothecary.% .douard regarded her coldly. %This situation is !ery gra!e, 7iss 7achura. &hen I am satisfied that you did not purposely try to harm my wife, you will be released.% $e nodded to 1oleson and 1oleson grasped 7ichia by the arm. %Please come with me, my lady,% 1oleson said politely. 7ichia allowed herself to be led away, but she threw a look of !enomous hatred o!er her shoulder at ieran before the door closed behind her. %I#ll go get (mrisen in the morning,% ieran said. %I#ll check in with =onas and Tank while I#m there.% %Thank you,% .douard said. $e scowled as he rounded his desk and sat back down. %Curdan 7achura is going to raise an enormous fuss o!er this. If it turns out she#s innocent of any wrongdoing, I#ll ha!e to apologi0e to him publicly.% %I don#t think we#re wrong,% ieran said. %7aybe she didn#t plan it in ad!ance, but I still think she was hoping to ruin Celli#s pregnancy.% %(nd she may ha!e succeeded,% .douard grumbled. %&omen sur!i!e the birth of twins all the time,% 7oret0 said. %I know.% .douard ran his fingers through his hair again. %Celli#s "ust so slender*% %I won#t let anything happen to Celli, .douard,% said. ieran

.douard met his eyes and smiled. %Thank you, ieran. That makes me feel better.% $e looked around his desk and sighed. %I#d better get back to work. >nce word gets out about 7ichia, I ha!e a feeling I#m going to be !ery busy.% ieran would ha!e kissed him then, but since 7oret0 was there, he "ust smiled. The two wi0ards left .douard alone in his office, but in the hall outside the

waiting area, 7oret0 stopped his arm.

ieran with a hand on

%$ow certain are you that 7ichia did this on purpose'% %.5tremely certain.% ieran frowned. %1he tried to use an herbal spell on .douard once, so she is ob!iously willing to go down that path.% 7oret0 nodded. %,ery well. I think I#ll go intercept 7achura and make sure he understands the gra!ity of the situation before he goes after .douard. I#m still bothered by the fact that he would go to all the trouble of arranging Caren#s engagement. I ha!e the feeling there#s another reason beyond her friendship with 7ichia.% %&hy does that matter'% %3obrick and 7achura are ri!als,% 7oret0 said. %They#!e both been trying to get seats on .douard#s senior council. 1o why would 7achura arrange an engagement for a ri!al' If it was "ust to get Caren a husband, almost any unmarried gentleman would do, so why 3obrick' It bothers me.% ieran didn#t ha!e an answer for that. This was politics and he knew there was still a lot he didn#t understand about that. 7oret0 shrugged. %(nyway, I#ll ask him about it and see what he says. If I don#t like his answer, I can always ha!e (mrisen depose him, too.% %&ithout good cause'% ieran said lightly. %That would ha!e the entire nobility up in arms.% %They could use shaking up,% 7oret0 snorted. %1end for me tomorrow when you get back.% %&ill do.% -o-o-o-o&hen ieran arri!ed on 6right Isle on the morning ferry the ne5t day, it was ob!ious that rumors had already reached the island. (s soon as he walked into the &i0ards $all, he was accosted by 2a!ilan. %)ord ieran, what#s going on at court'% 2a!ilan demanded sharply. %&hat#s this I hear about the /ueen being attacked and some noblewoman being arrested for it'% ieran stared. %The /ueen was not attacked, )ord 2a!ilan,% he replied loudly enough so anyone trying to ea!esdrop would be sure to o!erhear. 6etter to /uell a rumor like this as soon as possible. %$owe!er, there is

a situation and his ma"esty would like to borrow (mrisen for a day or two.% 2a!ilan lowered his !oice. %.douard wants to do a soothsaying' >n whom'% %)et#s not discuss it in public.% ieran lifted his eyebrows and "ust looked at him without saying anything more. 2a!ilan frowned. %,ery well, come to my office.% ieran accompanied 2a!ilan to his office and neither man spoke until the door was closed behind them. %1o what is this about'% 2a!ilan said as soon as they were alone. %3oes it ha!e something to do with all those herbal spells Tank and =onas are testing'% %-es. $er ma"esty was gi!en a !ery powerful fertility spell and we want (mrisen to tell us if the young woman responsible intended to in"ure her. <ueen Celli was not told how powerful the spell was or the correct dosage to use.% 2a!ilan#s frown deepened. %I#m surprised her ma"esty would use a magically enhanced remedy,% he said. %I know she has no lo!e for magic.% %&e were surprised, too,% ieran replied with a shrug. %6ut she had good reasons that o!ercame her natural reluctance.% %I see.% 2a!ilan rubbed his chin. %&ell, if (mrisen is going to be needed for a few days, she#ll probably want to prepare.% %That#s fine. I want to check in with Tank and =onas anyway. Can you ask her to meet me at Tank#s lab'% %>f course.% %Thanks.% ieran left 2a!ilan#s office and made his way to Tank#s lab, a!oiding starting con!ersations with anyone else along the way, although it was difficult to do so without being rude. .!eryone it seemed had a /uestion that "ust had to be asked. &hen he arri!ed at the lab, he found =onas seated on a stool ne5t to a workbench watching Tank e5amine something in front of him. The workbench was co!ered with beakers, bowls of herbs and powders, and do0ens of different si0e spoons, stirrers, scalpels and other tools of the apothecary trade. %This looks promising,% ieran said as he walked in. Tank straightened up with a frown. %7aybe to you.% $e wa!ed a hand at a dish with a tiny mound of pale white powder in its center sitting on his workbench.

%I#!e managed to isolate the ingredient that is enhancing all these formulas but I ha!en#t figured out what it is. It#s definitely a purely magical ingredient. 6y itself, it has no medicinal /ualities. It "ust seems to boost the magical effect of whate!er it#s added to.% Tank rubbed his chin. %In a way, it reminds me of madrin bone powder8% $e stopped in mid-sentence and his eyes went completely round. %It can#t be*% he whispered. $e whirled around and raced across the lab to a storage cabinet. -anking open drawers, he rummaged through them, muttering to himself as he searched for something. $e hurried back, carrying a small "ar containing a deep blue li/uid. %Please don#t let this work,% he murmured as he poured some of the li/uid into a shallow dish. Taking a pinch of the magic powder, he sprinkled it across the fluid. The fluid immediately turned from deep blue to stark white. Tank closed his eyes with a groan. %It#s bone,% he said resignedly. $e opened his eyes and looked at ieran. %$uman bone. I think I know what happened to the missing wi0ards.% =onas "umped off the stool. %I#ll get 3i!wall and .stan*% $e ran out of the lab. ieran barely heard him. $e stared at the dish of bone powder as his stomach sank. %-ou think someone8% $e swallowed, mustering the courage to continue the sentence. %-ou think someone killed those wi0ards, boiled their bones and crushed them into powder'% Tank nodded slowly. %=ust like they used to render down a dead madrin.% %&hy would anyone do such a thing'% ieran felt sick. 3oing something so horrible to anyone, not "ust a wi0ard, nauseated him. %7ore to the point,% Tank said grimly, %how did someone know it would work'% ieran stared. %Think about it,% Tank continued. %7adrin bone powder has been known about and used for centuries, but in all that time, has anyone e!er heard of a wi0ard being used in the same way'% ieran shook his head. Tank went on, his brows pulled down in a thoughtful frown. %6ut it makes sense. 7adrin are magical creatures and so are wi0ards. That point became !ery clear when you destroyed (kitaka. -ou amputated his power and he subse/uently died.%

6eing reminded of that incident made ieran#s nausea worse. $e drew in a sharp breath. %6ut all humans ha!e magical ability to some degree. It#s "ust stronger in wi0ards. &hen I was growing up, I knew se!eral people who could perform minor spells, but no wi0ards e!er came to take them to the $all or bind them.% Tank nodded. %I know, but it#s a pro!en fact that the more you use magic, the more adept you become at using it. That#s the whole point of training. &hat if using magic also causes your bones to become saturated with it, to the point where your bones by themsel!es radiate magic' If this is true, the bones of wi0ards trained at the hall would become "ust like madrin bone. 7aybe our bones are the source of our magical ability.% %In that case,% 3i!wall said from the doorway, % ieran#s bones are more precious than gold.% They both turned to stare at the elderly wi0ard. 1he hobbled in leaning on .stan#s arm with =onas trailing behind them. %Close the door,% 3i!wall said to =onas. Tank got her a chair and she sank into it with a relie!ed sigh. %3o you really belie!e this is what happened to our missing wi0ards'% %-es, unfortunately,% Tank said. %This powder is unmistakably made from human bone and the magic it radiates is infused in its substance. I can#t think what else it could be.% 3i!wall drew a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. %It hurts to say it, but I ha!e no doubt that you are correct. 1omeone murdered these wi0ards for their bones and then sold the powder for a profit.% .stan#s face went gray with dismay and sadness. %$ow could anyone do such a thing'% he whispered hoarsely. %I know wi0ards are often hated and despised, but to murder them like this8'% $e trailed off, his !oice sounding of tears. %3o you think it#s because .douard outlawed madrin bone powder'% ieran asked. It was a sickening thought. -ears ago he had suggested that .douard make the edict protecting madrin. This might all ha!e been because of him. %It#s a possibility,% 3i!wall said. :nconsciously, she rubbed her stiff knees. %+o,% .stan said, his !oice still infinitely sad. %The first disappearances happened ten years ago, before ing

.douard issued that edict. I don#t think it was the cause.% ieran felt guilty for being somewhat relie!ed by .stan#s answer. %6ut it undoubtedly made the crime more profitable once madrin bone powder went from being rare to una!ailable. I daresay the number of wi0ards being killed increased.% =onas suddenly gasped. %The /ueen*% he e5claimed. 3i!wall frowned. %&hat about her'% %1he used a spell made from that*% $e pointed at the powder. %1he ingested it*% %&hat are you talking about'*% 3i!wall snapped. ieran#s legs suddenly felt weak. $e sagged against the workbench and co!ered his face with his hand. %Celli used a fertility spell on her wedding night to get pregnant. The spell was made with that wi0ard bone powder to enhance its effecti!eness. 1he was not told how powerful it was and used far more than the recommended dosage. It is likely she will ha!e twins because of it.% ieran felt tears in his eyes. %6ut she will be sickened when she finds out about this.% %&hy tell her'% 3i!wall asked. %3oes she need to know'% %1he#ll find out.% ieran pushed upright, but continued to lean on the table. %6ecause we ha!e to find out who#s doing this and stop him. &hen that happens, e!eryone who has used these spells and remedies will find out they ha!e been ingesting the bones of dead wi0ards.% $e turned sad eyes on the others. %There#s nothing we can do to pre!ent that.% They all fell silent as they thought about this. ieran knew he was right. There was no way they could keep this a secret. 3i!wall#s becomes be used ne!er be scowl deepened as she thought. %6ut if it common knowledge that wi0ard bones can as a magical enhancement, our li!es will safe again.%

%Perhaps it#s time to start re/uiring all wi0ards to learn defensi!e magic before graduation,% Tank said with a harsh laugh. %&e need to learn e!erything there is to know about that powder, Tank,% ieran said. %1pecifically, what else can it be used for' 4emember, Imbario used to ingest pure madrin bone powder to enhance his

power. &ould wi0ard bone powder ha!e the same effect'% Tank#s eyes widened but it was 3i!wall who answered. %(re you suggesting that a wi0ard might be behind this'% she e5claimed angrily. %+o,% ieran said. %6ut I#m wondering if consuming the powder would gi!e an ordinary person magical abilities.% %7adrin bone powder didn#t ha!e that effect on nonwi0ards,% 3i!wall said, her frown deepening. %6ut wi0ard bone powder isn#t /uite the same,% replied. %Is it, Tank'% ieran

%+o, it#s not,% Tank said slowly. $e ga0ed at the small mound of pale powder resting in its dish. %I#ll in!estigate it. I ha!e some ideas for tests that might tell us what effects it would ha!e.% %2ood.% ieran nodded once. There was a knock at the door and he straightened up, assuming a commanding demeanor. %That will be (mrisen. I#m taking her back to &hite 1hores to do a soothsaying on 7ichia 7achura. 1he#s the one who ga!e <ueen Celli the spell without telling her the correct way to use it.% $e folded his arms across his chest. %I want this kept between us until Tank finishes his in!estigation.% $e turned to Tank. %&hen you#re finished, I want you to come to &hite 1hores and report directly to the king and )ord 7oret0.% %-es, my lord,% Tank replied, responding formally to ieran#s air of authority. %,ery well.% ieran started for the door. %.stan, please continue your in!estigation. (lthough we know what happened to these wi0ards, we still do not know who is responsible. =onas, please assist him. ;ind the man who is selling those spells to the apothecary shop. Perhaps you can trace back to the murderer from there.% %-es, my lord,% .stan and =onas answered in unison, their !oices as formal as Tank#s. ieran opened the door, smoothing his e5pression as he did so. %(mrisen,% he said with a smile. %Thank you for agreeing to come to &hite 1hores.% 1he inclined her head. %I am a ser!ant of the crown, )ord ieran,% she said. 1he looked past him at the others with a faintly curious e5pression.

%(s are we all,% ieran replied. $e stepped into the hall. %1hall we go'% $e led the way in silence, but he could feel (mrisen#s brimming curiosity as they made their way down to the docks. The ferry had not yet departed because ieran had told Captain +eeda to wait for him. (s soon as they were aboard, +eeda shouted for the lines to be freed and the sails raised, and the ferry sailed out into the lake. >nce they were out on the water, (mrisen smiled ruefully at ieran. %I confess I am desperate to ask you what is going on, but I#m sure it would be better for my ob"ecti!ity if I entered this soothsaying without any foreknowledge.% ieran returned her smile. %That is correct, my lady. 6ut once your duties are complete, I will tell you e!erything. &e are in a situation where I think e!ery senior member of the &i0ards $all should be completely informed.% (mrisen#s gentle face took on a worried e5pression. %It#s that bad'% %I#m afraid so.% Chapter 1@: $earing .!en in the antechamber behind his courtroom, .douard could hear Curdan 7achura#s angry !oice. $e scowled in irritation. %&hy isn#t ieran back yet'% %$e should be here soon, sire,% 7oret0 replied. %The palace guard on the upper battlements reported sighting the ferry returning.% .douard ran his fingers through his hair9 a ner!ous gesture which annoyed him when he reali0ed he was doing it. %3o you think I#m o!erreacting to the situation'% 7oret0 crossed his arms. %+o, I don#t. The /ueen#s life and the progeny she might produce for you ha!e been put at risk. &hether it was intentional or not, someone will ha!e to be punished.% .douard nodded. %I#m glad you agree with me. I trust ieran#s "udgment implicitly, but ha!ing both my wi0ards feel as I do is reassuring.% The rear door to the antechamber opened and ieran entered with )ady (mrisen. %;inally*% .douard e5claimed. %&hat took you so long'% %I#ll tell you after the hearing,% ieran said, glancing at (mrisen. %It#s important, but I don#t want to compromise (mrisen#s ob"ecti!ity.%

%,ery well.% .douard turned to (mrisen. %Thank you for coming, my lady. &e will be deposing a young noblewoman today to determine her reason for pro!iding an herbal spell to her ma"esty. The young woman#s father will be present and he will probably be !ery belligerent about the proceedings.% (mrisen inclined ma"esty.% her head. %I understand, your

%)et#s proceed.% .douard led the way into the courtroom. (s soon as they entered, 7achura e5ploded in fury. %-our ma"esty* I demand redress immediately for this insult to my daughter and my family*% $e stamped o!er to the bench as .douard climbed up into his seat and glared up at him. %I refuse to allow your lo!er#s resentment of my daughter to impugn our reputation*% %7achura*% .douard snapped, purposely not using the man#s title. %This hearing is to determine if your daughter intentionally meant to harm her ma"esty, a concern the royal family#s bodyguard,% .douard put hea!y emphasis on those last words, %would like addressed.% .douard pinned 7achura with his harshest glare. %(nd if you make another outburst during the course of this proceeding, not only will you be remo!ed from the courtroom, you will spend the ne5t month in prison contemplating the !alue of showing respect for your king.% 7achura returned his glare for se!eral seconds and then spun around, stalking back to the table where 7ichia was seated with their family attorney. 7ichia#s face was red and splotchy from crying and she clutched a sodden handkerchief in both hands. Their attorney stood up and bowed slightly. %-our ma"esty, I am +ello 3ewer. This is my first time presenting a matter before the royal bench.% .douard sat back. %The proceedings here are no different from what you#d find in any of my appointed "udges# courtrooms. This is )ady (mrisen. 1he will be !erifying the truth of 7iss 7achura#s statements. I will be asking the /uestions. -ou will ha!e the opportunity to ask clarifying /uestions when I am finished.% %-es, your ma"esty.% 3ewer resumed his seat. .douard mo!ed his ga0e to 7ichia. 1he stared back at him with a look of near panic in her eyes. .douard nodded slightly at (mrisen and waited for the older

woman to walk o!er and hold out her hand to 7ichia. +er!ously, 7ichia placed her shaking hand in (mrisen#s and (mrisen nodded to .douard. %7iss 7achura,% .douard began without preamble. %;or whom did you buy the fertility spell'% 7ichia swallowed. %;or Caren &oolden.% %1he speaks the truth,% (mrisen said gra!ely. %&as it Caren#s idea to gi!e the fertility spell to her ma"esty'% %-es.% (mrisen inclined her head slightly without speaking. .douard tapped a finger on the bench. %&hen Caren made the suggestion, what were your thoughts'% 7ichia blinked se!eral times. %I thought she would say no. The /ueen, I mean. 1he doesn#t like magic, e!eryone knows that.% %6ut when she accepted the offer'% 7ichia shifted uncomfortably, her eyes flicking around the room. %I told Caren to make sure she used the whole dose.% %3id you gi!e Caren the specific instructions that you recei!ed from the apothecary'% %&ell, no, but I assumed she knew how to use it*% 7ichia#s !oice rose slightly. %Caren#s used herbal spells before*% %That it is not the truth,% (mrisen interrupted. %It is*% 7ichia cried. .douard leaned forward. %7ichia,% he said deliberately, %did you truly belie!e Caren knew how to use that herbal spell'% 7ichia dropped her eyes. %+o,% she whispered. %&hen you told her to say that the entire dose should be used, was it your e5pectation that her ma"esty would take the entire dose all at once'% 7ichia began to shake and would not look up. %(nswer the /uestion*% .douard snapped. %-es*% 7ichia#s response was nearly inaudible. .douard sat back and regarded her coldly. %&as it your hope that her ma"esty would be in"ured as a result of misusing the spell'% 7ichia shuddered. %I thought,% she whispered, %that it would make her miscarry. I read that if a /ueen

miscarries, the nobility can ask the king to di!orce her and remarry.% %I see.% .douard shifted his ga0e to Curdan 7achura. %)ord 7achura,% he said. %-our daughter has "ust admitted that she attempted to in"ure her ma"esty and cause the death of my unborn child. &hile it appears she did not plan this crime from the beginning, she did not hesitate to take ad!antage of the opportunity when it was before her. I find her beha!ior utterly reprehensible.% %I#m sorry, your ma"esty*% 7ichia gasped. %It#s too late for that,% .douard said. %7ichia 7achura, for the crime of attempting to poison the /ueen, I sentence you to fi!e years in prison.% 7ichia burst into loud sobs before .douard could continue. $e raised his !oice slightly. %(t this time, I will hear mitigating arguments why this sentence should not be imposed.% +ello 3ewer immediately stood up. %-our ma"esty, if I may be allowed.% .douard wa!ed a hand. 3ewer stepped in front of the table where 7ichia was seated and turned so that he could see both her and .douard. %7iss 7achura, when did you tell 7iss &oolden how to use the spell' &as it before or after the /ueen accepted the offer'% 7ichia drew a gulping breath, trying to stifle her sobs. %It was before, I think. I told Caren what to say when she first told me about offering the spell to the /ueen.% %1o you did not know at that time if her ma"esty would accept'% %+o.% 7ichia#s eyes widened and she sniffed loudly. %I didn#t e!en know she had until Caren told me the day after the wedding, when the /ueen was sick.% 3ewer faced .douard. %-our ma"esty, I contend that 7iss 7achura#s ill-ad!ised instructions were thoughtless rather than deliberate. &hile she recogni0ed that ingesting the spell might cause her ma"esty to miscarry, I do not belie!e she actually planned or hoped for this outcome.% %( soothsaying cannot tell us what 7iss 7achura#s intentions were at the time,% .douard said. %&hat it can tell us is that 7iss 7achura knew her remarks could lead to harm and made them anyway. .!en were this nothing but a misunderstanding on 7iss

&oolden#s part, the fact remains that the /ueen may ha!e suffered harm and I cannot allow the incident to go unpunished.% 7achura stood up abruptly, his lips pushed out in an angry scowl. %3o you wish to say something, )ord 7achura'% .douard asked. %-es*% 7achura cracked out. %;i!e years is a ridiculously long time for my daughter to suffer simply because she made a foolishly offhand remark* I ha!e not seen any sign that the /ueen suffered some grie!ous in"ury* If punishment is called for, I propose a simple fine.% $e paused and eyed .douard calculatingly. %6ut I think the fine should be shared between the two young women responsible, and since 7iss &oolden is engaged, her fiancE should pay her share.% .douard drummed his fingers on his desk while he thought about this. It was unusual for any noble to willingly recommend he be assessed a fine. 6ut ha!ing brought it up, .douard had to agree that it was a reasonable penalty under the circumstances since, for the moment, Celli had not suffered any actual harm. 6ut what made it interesting was the proposal that Caren#s fiancE pay her share. emian 3obrick was still rebuilding his family#s fortune and reputation after his father#s treason. (nother fine, and worse still the appearance of another act against the crown, could set him back years. .douard glanced at 7oret0. The 4oyal &i0ard was studying 7achura with a look of disgusted understanding. .douard looked back at 7achura. %I will take your suggestion under ad!isement,% .douard said. %In the meantime, 7ichia will remain in custody. )ady (mrisen, I would like you to depose 7iss &oolden and determine if she honestly meant to help her ma"esty or not. If you find no fault with her moti!ation, and I decide to accept a fine as punishment, only the 7achura family will pay it. This hearing is ad"ourned.% 7achura had a frown of disappointment on his face as .douard and the others left, but 7oret0 was chuckling. %&ell done, your ma"esty,% 7oret0 said. %I think 7achura set 3obrick up by arranging the engagement to Caren &oolden. I think he#s been waiting for an opportunity to use her to bring him down.%

%&hy'% 7oret0 shrugged. %I don#t know. They are ri!als for seats on your council.% %That#s stupid,% .douard grumbled. %I already put Celli#s uncle on the council. &hat makes him think I#m going to appoint anyone else'% %&ho knows' 6ut I#m going to keep an eye on 7achura. There#s something about him that rubs me the wrong way.% 7oret0 grinned at ieran. %(nd it#s more than that he ran you through once.% %Thanks,% ieran chuckled wryly, but then his face grew serious. %6ut before we deal with Caren, we need to talk about what I learned on 6right Isle today.% %(ll right,% .douard said. %6ut let#s not wait too long before we wrap this up. (t this point, I am inclined to accept the fine in this case. 7ichia is spiteful and thoughtless, and she probably didn#t put a whole lot of thought into what she said, but I still won#t let her get away with it. 1o tomorrow, I#ll issue her a hefty fine and release her.% %That sounds fair, your ma"esty,% 7oret0 said. ieran nodded in agreement. %The fine probably won#t trouble her any since her father will pay it, but she will ha!e languished in a cell for three days. I#m happy with that.% The antechamber had benches against two walls and ieran gestured toward them. %I think you should all sit down for what I need to tell you,% he said. .douard frowned as he sat down between 7oret0 and (mrisen. ieran#s news must be gra!e indeed. The young wi0ard drew a breath before continuing. %Tank figured out what the magical enhancement is in the spell Celli took. It#s wi0ard bone powder.% %&hat'*% 7oret0 e5claimed in shock. (mrisen#s face lost all color. %&i0ard bone powder,% ieran repeated. %It appears to ha!e been made in the same way madrin bone powder was made. &e belie!e this is what happened to the missing wi0ards.% (mrisen clasped her hands in front of her and whispered a prayer for the souls of the dead. .douard watched the reactions of the two wi0ards with understanding. The re!elation hit them !iscerally. To hear that their peers had been murdered for their bones was sickening. 6ut the implications were e!en

worse and .douard#s mind raced. It made sense, in a disgusting sort of way, that wi0ard bones and madrin bones could be used in the same way, since both were creatures of magic, but who had figured it out' (nd why had no one thought of it before' %&hat about the other spells =onas bought' -ou said they all contained the same enhancement.% %-es,% ieran nodded. %.!ery one of those spells contained wi0ard bone powder.% ieran met .douard#s eyes steadily. %Celli ingested it.% .douard swallowed. %I understand. &e will tell her together.% $e stood up. %$owe!er, no one else is to be told. I want the source of this powder traced. &e need to find the perpetrator.% %This is a matter for the &i0ards $all,% 7oret0 said. $is !oice shook slightly and he cleared his throat uncomfortably. %In this instance,% .douard said firmly, %the Crown and the $all will work together. (lthough the crime is being committed against wi0ards, e!ery person who has used one of those formulas has been !iolated.% $e looked at each of the three wi0ards in turn. %I think we are in agreement that the perpetrator, once found, will be sub"ect to summary e5ecution.% 7oret0 nodded sharply. %(greed. I will go to 6right Isle at once and take charge of the in!estigation. If e!er a task cried out for the inter!ention of the 4oyal &i0ard, this is one.% %Thank you, 7oret0,% .douard replied. %;orgi!e me for not letting you go with him, (mrisen, but I must still resol!e this other matter.% (mrisen inclined her head. %>f course, your ma"esty. I understand.% %I#ll ha!e a guard take you to 7iss &oolden,% .douard continued. %-ou can tell me your conclusions later. 4ight now,% he ga!e ieran a sad look, %we need to go talk to Celli.% -o-o-o-o-oCelli knew that three days was too soon to be feeling pregnant, but it still seemed like e!ery twinge and tweak in her abdomen must be a sign of her new condition. 6ut she suspected the !ague discomfort she felt after meals was probably a side-effect of the herbal fertility spell. The effects had faded /uite a bit from the first day, but she still did not feel completely normal. 1o she would return to her room in the

afternoon to rest, but she didn#t nap like she had the first day. 1he usually sat and sewed for a little while, until the uncomfortable feeling faded. That afternoon, howe!er, with only =ean and .ster in attendance, she was waiting more than sewing. 1he knew .douard was putting 7ichia 7achura on trial today and she was an5ious to learn the outcome. 1he felt a little guilty that the young woman was in so much trouble because of her. 1he didn#t know 7ichia !ery well, so she wasn#t sure herself if the young woman had purposely tried to in"ure her, but since .douard and ieran were con!inced that she had, Celli was inclined to belie!e it, too. It bothered her, but perhaps more so because it made her wonder if she was neglecting the younger, unmarried women in her /uest to establish good relations with the more influential noblewomen, most of whom were older and married. 1he thought about this as she stared at the floor in front of her with her embroidery sitting neglected in her lap. 1he was deep in her thoughts and a knock at the door made her start. .ster "umped up and hurried to answer it. .douard walked in with ieran on his heels and both men wore grim e5pressions. Celli /uickly set her embroidery aside and stood up. %.douard* &hat happened at the trial'% %It was "ust a hearing,% .douard said, %and it seemed as if she did hope misusing the drug would cause you to miscarry.% %>h*% Celli instincti!ely pressed her hands against her belly. %$owe!er,% .douard continued with a scowl, %I will probably "ust fine her for it. I don#t think she planned it. I think she saw a chance and took it without really thinking about it.% $e paused and met her eyes. %6ut there#s something else.% $e gestured at the two maids and nodded toward the door. %)ea!e us, please.% The two young women threw frightened glances at Celli and hurried out. $is manner and tone sent a tremor of alarm down Celli#s spine. $er eyes flicked to ieran and the deep concern on his face mirrored .douard#s. $e stepped forward and took her hand. %1it down,% ieran said gently. $e sat down beside her and continued to hold her hand. .douard drew a deep breath. %&e learned something today about that spell you used. In fact, it applies to many of the herbal spells that people ha!e been

using.% $e hesitated and chewed his lip. %I don#t know how to say this,% he said finally. $e dropped to one knee in front of her and took her other hand. %That spell contained an additi!e which )ord Trasker at the &i0ards $all has determined was a powder made from the bones of dead wi0ards.% $e said the words /uickly with his eyes fi5ed on hers. Celli heard the words, but it took her a moment to grasp his meaning. &hen it hit her, she thought she would throw up. %&i0ard bones'% she whispered. %Powdered wi0ard bones'% 6oth ieran and .douard tightened their grips on her hands. %-es,% .douard said gently. %&e don#t know who did it, but many of the drugs sold at that particular apothecary contain it. It enhances the efficacy of the drug and e5tends its shelf life.% $e grimaced. %(ll !ery good features from a business perspecti!e, which is undoubtedly why no one /uestioned it.% Celli swallowed, trying to keep her gorge from rising. ieran !ery gently touched her forehead, and though he did not speak, she felt the soothing effects of his spell as her stomach settled. ( part of her mind was amused by the fact she no longer seemed to be bothered by these casual uses of magic. %I consumed someone#s bones,% she murmured, trying to consider the matter ob"ecti!ely. It was hard. %7ore than one person, probably,% she added. 1he returned .douard#s ga0e. %(nd so ha!e an untold number of people in this city.% %-es,% .douard acknowledged gra!ely. %-ou and countless others ha!e been !iolated in an unspeakable way.% Celli nodded. 1he struggled to depersonali0e the news, because to internali0e it would break her heart. There were many things to consider. 6etter to attack them one at a time. %&ill there be any harm to my babies'% %I don#t think so,% ieran answered. %The bone itself is harmless and the magic it contained was slight enough that I can no longer detect it in you.% %,ery well,% Celli said. 1he looked from one to the other. %I cannot deny that I am !ery upset by this, but other people are going to feel the same way, or worse. I took one dose of something. >ther people who ha!e used these herbal spells regularly may be horrified. Perhaps the &i0ards $all could de!ise a test to assure

people they ha!e suffered no ill effects and that the powder is no longer in their bodies.% %I#m not sure there#s any way to do that,% doubtfully. ieran said

%It doesn#t matter,% Celli responded rather cynically. %People belie!e wi0ards are capable of anything. If you say there is such a test, people will belie!e in the results because they want to.% .douard smiled. %That#s a !ery good idea, Celli. People will want reassurance and a magical test will pro!ide e5actly that. It doesn#t matter if it actually does anything.% ieran shook his head ruefully. %Politics again, eh'% %(lways,% .douard said. $e sat down ne5t to Celli, but continued to hold her hand. %$owe!er, we are not planning to publici0e this right away. I want to gi!e the wi0ards time to track down whoe!er is responsible, because someone is killing wi0ards to steal their bones, and it#s this person I want.% %I understand,% Celli said. 1he fell silent. It was comforting to be sitting between .douard and ieran with their hands clasping hers warmly. Their ob!ious concern for her was reassuring in itself. %This wi0ard bone powder,% she said slowly, %if it#s magical all by itself, would ingesting it regularly cause someone to become magic'% %It might,% ieran said. %6ut I don#t think the effect would last.% %:nless the person kept eating the powder.% %Possibly.% %&hich would cause the person to wi0ards,% Celli concluded. keep killing

ieran sighed. %&e ha!e wi0ard disappearances going back ten years,% he said. %6ut we only "ust found out about the powder being made into herbal spells and sold. &e ha!e no idea how long that#s been happening.% Celli s/uee0ed his hand. %I#m not suggesting this is the reason for the murders. I "ust want to understand the possible implications. (nd it keeps me from focusing too much on myself,% she added with a smile. ieran returned her smile, and then leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek. %-ou know you are precious to us, Celli,% he said gently. %&e won#t let you come to harm.%

%I know.% 1he smiled at him and s/uee0ed his hand. 1he s/uee0ed .douard#s hand, too and he kissed her other cheek. %-ou#re a good /ueen, Celli,% .douard said. %I think you should be in charge when it is time to make a public announcement about this. -our personal e5perience will make your sympathy genuine. It might help public reaction.% %I "ust hope I can keep from bursting into tears when I talk about it,% Celli said. %It#s heartbreaking when you think about what happened to those poor wi0ards.% %That#s all the more reason to ha!e you do it,% said. %1ympathy for wi0ards is rare indeed.% ieran

Celli chuckled softly. %(ll the more so coming from an (mbrea, I imagine.% 1he managed a weak smile. %I suppose in one sense it#s a good thing that I used that fertility spell. If I hadn#t you might not ha!e unco!ered this.% %That#s one way to look at it,% .douard said. %3o you feel all right'% %-es, I#m fine. The concern of my two dearest friends is a great comfort.% Celli smiled at them and recei!ed warm smiles in return. %(s for 7iss 7achura, I think I shall be magnanimous and assure her that I ha!e no ill will. I#ll do my best to gi!e the impression that it was my faulty understanding of herbal spells and not a deliberate act on her part.% %I doubt she will appreciate that,% ieran said sourly. %Perhaps not,% Celli replied. %6ut it might cause other young women who resent my assumption of the crown to look on me more fa!orably. I still ha!e a long way to go to be completely accepted.% 1he touched her stomach. %:ntil I ha!e produced an heir, my position isn#t totally secure. 6ut the more support I ha!e, the less trouble I#ll ha!e to deal with until then.% %,ery true,% .douard said. $e cupped her hand in his and patted it gently. %7anaging the court is more your responsibility than mine, so I#ll lea!e further handling of this matter to you. 6ut the one thing I want you to tell me is if you ha!e any issues with Curdan 7achura, 7ichia#s father. $e#s already offended me about this, so if he offends you, too, I want to know. I#ll slap an additional fine on him for being irritating.% Celli burst out laughing. %I want to see where that law is written*%

.douard smirked. %It#s an unwritten law that irritating your king is generally a bad idea.% %I#ll keep that in mind.% The dismay Celli had felt at the beginning of the con!ersation was replaced by a warm affection. 1he was e5tremely fond of .douard and ieran. It was still disturbing to think that she had drunk the powdered remains of murdered wi0ards, but it was already done. 3welling on it would not change anything. (nd the fact remained that if she had not done so, the crime might ha!e continued to go undisco!ered. %Can we ha!e dinner together tonight'% %Certainly,% .douard said. %&e ha!en#t spent enough time together. I#ll mo!e my council meeting to tomorrow.% %Thank you.% Celli turned to too.% %>f course, your ma"esty.% Celli bumped him with her shoulder. %<uit being so formal* -ou#re part of this family, too.% ieran smiled and bumped her back. %I know.% Celli wrinkled her nose at him. ieran didn#t tease her !ery often and he always caught her by surprise when he did. It was like ha!ing a big brother at court. %I#d better get back to my office,% .douard said. $e stood up. %I#ll see you at dinner.% =ean and .ster reentered when he left and hurried to her side. %Is e!erything all right, your ma"esty'% =ean asked an5iously. %I#m fine, =ean,% Celli said. %(nd it#s time for me to stop sitting around. I think I#ll take a walk in the garden. &ould you like to "oin me, )ord ieran'% %I#d lo!e to.% They left her room together and walked out into the late afternoon sunshine. The waning days of summer were hotter in &hite 1hores than they were on her family estate in the eastern foothills, but Celli liked the warmth. %I think I would like to meet )ord Trasker,% Celli said abruptly. %Tank'% ieran said. %-ou#d like him. $e#s !ery smart. -ou should in!ite him to court9 otherwise he#ll ne!er lea!e the island.% %I#ll do that,% Celli said. %I want to meet more wi0ards. This incident has made me reali0e I wasn#t looking at them as people and that#s wrong. If I e5pect others to ieran. %I want you there,

forget my family#s past and treat me differently, then I need to forget my family#s pre"udices and treat wi0ards differently.% ieran smiled. %-ou really are a great woman, Celli.% Celli looked up at the sky. %I#m going to be the greatest /ueen &hite 1hores has e!er seen,% she said with determination. %I promise you.% Chapter 1A: Royal !rogeny The first of the fall rains brought a setback for 7oret0. $e had assigned a low-ranking wi0ard to spend her days hanging out at the apothecary shop that was at the center of their in!estigation to watch for the peddler who was selling the wi0ard-bone enhanced formulas. The young woman had been !ery diligent in her duty and when she came to report her failure to 7oret0, she was in tears. %I had to stay outside the shop,% she told 7oret0 as she stood trembling in front of his desk, her dark eyes puffy. %;ewer people were coming in when I was inside. It made me think that the person I was looking for might not come in either, so I was keeping watch on the store from "ust down the street.% %That is a reasonable assumption,% 7oret0 said. %I would ha!e done the same thing.% %The market was really crowded this morning,% the young woman continued, %e!en though it was raining. I got worried that I couldn#t see e!eryone going into the apothecary, so I mo!ed a little closer. I didn#t see anyone unusual going in. It was mostly gentlemen and ladies and children going in for sweets.% 1he wiped her nose /uickly with her handkerchief. %(nd then one of the clerks came out and told me the man I was looking for had "ust come in to take their order. I ran into the store and the manager told me that he had mentioned the &i0ards $all was interested in his remedies and the man had left without taking his order*% 1he stared at 7oret0, shame coloring her face. %I must ha!e run right past him*% %(nd the clerk who came to get you said nothing'*% %&hen I went back out, he was standing there flirting with the girl from the hat shop ne5t door. &hen I confronted him, he said he ne!er saw the man come out.% 1he wiped her nose again. %There were so many people on the street he could ha!e gone in any direction*%

7oret0 swore angrily. &hen the young woman#s eyes filled with fresh tears, 7oret0 tried to moderate his tone. %I don#t blame you,% he said, %I blame that fool store manager for saying something about wi0ards. >b!iously, the man knows what he#s selling and now he reali0es we do, too.% $e drummed his fingers on his desk, fuming. $e wondered if he should ha!e been more e5plicit when he told the manager that wi0ards would be keeping an eye on his shop. %Thank you, 7iss .aston,% he said finally. %Please return to the shop and continue to obser!e it. 3o so from the inside. I don#t care if it affects business.% %-es, my lord*% the young woman bowed deeply and hurried out. 7oret0 fumed /uietly for se!eral minutes after she left, contemplating his ne5t steps. If the people they were after knew their secret was out, they might simply close up shop and he would ha!e no chance of capturing them. >n the other hand, if they had products to sell, they might try to do so anyway before calling it /uits. Then something 7iss .aston had said came back to him and 7oret0 pursed his lips. 1he had said none of the people going in looked unusual, "ust gentlemen and ladies and children. That meant the man they were looking for had been dressed as a gentleman, not the peddler they were e5pecting. 7oret0 decided it was time to consult with .douard. If gentlemen were in!ol!ed, it did fall under his "urisdiction. $e walked /uickly to the young king#s office, hoping he wasn#t busy. 6ut there were do0ens of people in .douard#s waiting room and his secretary had a faintly harried e5pression on his usually serene face. %I need to speak to his ma"esty, 2raelin,% 7oret0 said, using his formal tone. 2raelin didn#t e!en look at the people waiting. %>f course, my lord.% $e went immediately to the door to .douard#s office, knocked and opened it right away. %;orgi!e me, your ma"esty, but )ord 7oret0 re/uests an immediate audience.% 7oret0 suppressed a grin. (lthough he hadn#t phrased his re/uest that way, by stating it like that, 2raelin was informing whoe!er was inside that they were about to get kicked out by someone of superior authority. 2raelin stepped to the side to allow a pair of sour-faced gentlemen to emerge and then inclined his

head to 7oret0, holding the door open for him. 7oret0 went through and 2raelin closed it behind him. .douard was sitting behind his desk with undisguised e5asperation on his face. %&hate!er your reason for coming, thank you*% he e5claimed. %I was about ready to decide against both those men.% %>h'% 7oret0 lifted an eyebrow. %The matter is so petty as to not e!en re/uire my attention, but they were both /uite sure that no one but me could resol!e it fairly.% %That shows that your citi0ens place great !alue on your "udgment.% %I suppose.% .douard drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. %1o what urgent matter brings you here'% 7oret0 scowled. %&e lost our /uarry.% %&hat'*% %The peddler came to the apothecary shop today and the fool manager told him that wi0ards were looking for him. 1o he took off "ust as my watchdog was running into the store to find him. 1he thinks she ran right past him.% %3ammit*% .douard slammed his hand down on his desk. %That was our best chance at finding these people*% %I know*% 7oret0 snapped, e/ually irritated. %I told her to go back and stay in the store, but I think it#s probably too late. I think it#s time to make an announcement.% .douard made a face. %-ou#re probably right. There#s nothing to be gained by hiding the truth and maybe someone will come forward with information when they reali0e a crime is being committed.% $e started to run his fingers through his hair and then stopped himself with an e5asperated scowl. %I want Celli to make the announcement, so I#ll speak to her after dinner tonight. I#ll help her write something up. &ould you please make arrangements for a public speech in the courtyard tomorrow' 1et up a stage or something so people can see her.% 7oret0 nodded. %&ill do. There#s one other thing.% %+ot more bad news, I hope.% %7aybe. The wi0ard I had watching the shop said she only saw gentlemen going in9 no common peddlers.% 7oret0 stopped there and watched .douard#s face.

%I see,% .douard said slowly. %1o whoe!er is behind this is someone of breeding, possibly e!en of noble blood.% %That would be my guess.% %,ery well,% .douard nodded. %)et#s keep that clue to oursel!es for now. The general public doesn#t need to know. They#ll be unhappy enough when they find out what they#!e been consuming.% %I agree.% 7oret0 started to turn away. %I#ll let you get back to work.% Then he paused and smirked. %3o you want me to settle the issue between those two gentlemen on my way out'% .douard grinned. %+o, but I#ll tell them you offered to. 7aybe that will get them to /uit arguing with e!erything I say and accept the compromise I told them to make.% 7oret0 returned the king#s grin as he went out. The two gentlemen hurried past him as soon as he cleared the doorway. The wi0ard smoothed his e5pression as he returned to his office. $e had come to greatly respect .douard o!er the years. (dmittedly, the young king could be a bit short-tempered, but he was ne!er unfair and his de!otion to his sub"ects was undeniable. 7oret0 went back to his office to send the latest news to 2a!ilan. (s he sat down at his desk to use the wa5 communication tablet, he thought about the man who had in!ented it. Imbario had been an e5ceptional wi0ard. The tablets were proof of that. 6ut simply being a great wi0ard had not been enough for him and greed had led to his downfall. 6ut that didn#t mean 7oret0 re"ected e!erything Imbario had done, which was why he had asked Tank to recreate the man#s communication tablets. They really were brilliant. $e carefully wrote his message about the upcoming announcement and the reason for it into the smooth surface of the tablet and waited. (fter a few moments, the message was smoothed away and a response appeared, the letters poking up out of the surface of the wa5. Unfortunate. Should someone come over for the announcement? 7oret0 smoothed the wa5 and wrote back: Not necessary. I will be there. You should plan to inform the Hall at the same time. Wi ards should !now to protect themselves.

(fter a moment, his message cleared for a new response. Will do. 7oret0 smoothed the response away and sat back. +ow that this was taken care of, he needed to attend to .douard#s re/uest. .douard almost ne!er made public announcements. $e usually "ust issued proclamations and had them posted on billboards throughout the city. 6ut this was something people needed to hear firsthand. %I should talk to ieran,% he murmured. %I imagine he can make a pro"ection of Celli that would be !isible throughout most of the city. (nd I need to get some notices posted so people know about it.% $e sighed. $e was not looking forward to this. People were not going to be happy. -o-o-o-o1eated ne5t to each other on the couch in Celli#s sitting room, ieran sensed the sudden spike in her unhappiness when .douard informed her that she was going to be called upon to perform her magisterial duties. %There#s really no other option'% she asked, her gra!e tone hiding the concern he felt through the bond of his protection spell. %I#m afraid not,% .douard replied. %It#s likely whoe!er is behind this knows we#re on to them now. I#m hoping a public announcement might cause people to come forward with information.% %,ery well,% Celli ac/uiesced with a sigh. %I#!e asked 7oret0 to ha!e a stage set up in the courtyard for tomorrow morning,% .douard continued. %I reali0e not !ery many people can fit in the courtyard, but I assume my local wi0ards can do something about that.% $e smiled lightly at ieran. ieran smiled back. %-es, we can. 7oret0 asked me to de!ise a means for a pro"ection of Celli to be !isible throughout the city.% %(nd I imagine you#!e already thought of something.% .douard#s !oice was warmly affectionate. $e had ne!er once made ieran feel that he thought his bodyguard#s ability to come up with comple5 spells on a moment#s notice was a sign of rogue powers. %-es. It#s really "ust a !ariation of the illusion I used to hide us when we ran away to find the madrin that time. $owe!er,% he turned to Celli and continued carefully, %there#s a strong likelihood that you#ll be able to feel this spell acting on you.%

Celli shifted uncomfortably. %4eally' &hy is that'% %I will be pro"ecting a mo!ing image of you into the air abo!e se!eral ma"or intersections around &hite 1hores. To do that, I will ha!e to draw a lot of power and wrap you in a spell that tracks your mo!ement. I will be pro"ecting your !oice at the same time to the same locations, which will call for me to apply e!en more power. There#s "ust no way I can touch you with that much power and not ha!e you be aware of it.% Celli swallowed. %If it must be done, it must be done.% 1he managed a weak smile. %(lthough I can#t promise it won#t gi!e me the twitches.% %If it doesn#t hit you like the touch of a madrin#s wet nose, you#ll be all right,% .douard said with a chuckle. ieran made a face at him. %I#m really sure I warned you that the madrin#s touch would ha!e an impact.% .douard leaned toward Celli. %It knocked me out cold,% he confided. The young /ueen#s eyes widened with alarm. %(nd he didn#t say a thing ahead of time,% he added in an aggrie!ed tone. Celli turned her alarmed ga0e on ieran. %It won#t be anything like that,% ieran said firmly. %I don#t e5pect it to hurt or anything. (t most you#ll probably feel tingling on your skin.% %I see.% Celli blinked once and looked down. $er hand unconsciously settled on her still-flat belly. ieran put his hand on top of hers. %There is truly no danger, Celli, I promise you. I could ne!er do anything that would cause you harm.% %I know.% Celli smiled at him. %I do try not to react like a frightened child when magic is in!ol!ed, but I don#t seem to be able to completely escape the worry. (t least my children should not ha!e that failing.% 1he rubbed her belly, sliding her hand back and forth under ieran#s. %They#ll grow up with a wi0ard as a second father.% %;ather'*% ieran blurted, snatching his hand away. Celli laughed. %&ell, how else am I supposed to describe you'% 1he leaned toward him and grinned wickedly. %I will ob!iously be their mother, but you sleep with their father, so calling you uncle "ust wouldn#t work.% %I don#t think you need to call me anything*% ieran answered faintly. %I am the family bodyguard*% .douard blinked se!eral times and put a hand o!er his

mouth. %-ou better not be laughing at me*% threatened.

ieran

%>f course not*% .douard choked out, but he /uickly co!ered his mouth again. ieran looked from one to the other in dismay, wondering if they had talked about this. (s fond as he was of Celli and lo!ing .douard as much as he did, he knew without /uestion that he would lo!e their children une/ui!ocally. 6ut he had ne!er really thought about the role he would play in their young li!es, beyond his duty to protect them at all costs. %&e (mbreas belie!e a child can ne!er ha!e too many parents,% Celli said. 1he patted ieran#s knee. %It may seem like I#m teasing you, but I#m /uite serious. I e5pect you to take part in raising these children. (s king and /ueen, .douard and I may sometimes be una!ailable when one of our young ones needs a parent. I e5pect you to be there when that happens.% %I concur wholeheartedly,% .douard said. %$a!ing been raised by ser!ants myself, it would please me !ery much to know someone I lo!e is helping to raise my children.% ieran was stunned. It felt like he was being gi!en a gift. %I am honored to accept this responsibility,% he said in a shaking !oice. %Thank you.% .douard smiled lo!ingly at him. %6ut to get back to the business at hand...% $e turned to Celli. %3o you know what you#re going to say or would you like to discuss it'% Celli#s brow wrinkled thoughtfully. %I would like to hear your thoughts on the matter. I think I would know what to say if I were "ust addressing people at court. 6ut the general population is a different matter.% %(ll right. $ow about starting with this'% .douard began to outline his ideas and Celli listened attenti!ely. ieran said nothing while the two talked. In a way, he always en"oyed watching them interact when they were acting in their capacity as king and /ueen. +ow that they had been together for awhile, they had started to understand how each other#s minds worked, so they would often talk without /uite finishing sentences, because one would anticipate the point the other was about to make. (n outsider would probably ha!e found their con!ersations confusing and a little dis"ointed, but ieran understood them

completely. $e and .douard fre/uently communicated in the same way. &hen it looked like their discussion might go on for a while, ieran good up. %I#m going to see how 7oret0 is doing,% he said. %(ll right,% .douard replied. %I#ll see you later.% ieran kissed Celli on the cheek. %2oodnight.% 1he smiled at him fondly. %2oodnight, ieran.% ieran left them to finali0e her speech and went out to the courtyard. ( number of ser!ants were standing outside with lanterns, pro!iding light so that carpenters could put the finishing touches on the stage. It was a simple wooden platform with a protecti!e railing and steps at the back. The rain had stopped, but apparently only recently, because e!eryone working in the courtyard was wet. 7oret0, on the other hand, was completely dry. ieran felt the traces of the older wi0ard#s rainrepelling spell and smiled. %&ouldn#t it ha!e been polite to keep the rain off the workmen, too'% 7oret0 snorted. %2etting rained on builds character.% %:nless you#re a wi0ard,% "ust get wet.% ieran chuckled. %Then you

%&i0ard robes get too hea!y in the rain,% 7oret0 said primly. %(re .douard and Celli planning her speech'% %-es. 1he#ll be ready.% ieran looked up at the sky. %I "ust hope it clears up. 3oing the illusions in the rain could be tricky.% %I can make it clear up,% 7oret0 said with a straight face. %3on#t tempt me,% ieran laughed. %I#!e ne!er liked rain. )ord Inchor always worried about getting a fe!er when it rained and he would insist somebody go to the apothecary for fe!er medicine, and it usually ended up being me. I think I spent half my youth walking somewhere in the rain.% 7oret0 laughed. %I think you ha!e a better e5cuse for not wanting to get wet than I do. )et#s go inside. I would like you to describe this spell you#re planning to use to me again. I#m always fascinated by your rogue spells.% $e grinned as he made his last comment and ieran rolled his eyes. %>ne of these days I#m going to show you a real rogue spell9 one of 7a 6ricker#s best,% ieran grumbled.

%-ou#ll be picking splinters out of your backside for a week.% 7oret0 laughed louder and clapped him on the back. %I#m almost tempted*% They went inside and strolled back to 7oret0#s office. 1itting there talking about spells and illusions, ieran smiled to himself. $is con!ersation with 7oret0, in their official capacity as court wi0ards, reminded him of .douard and Celli#s con!ersation, in their official capacity as king and /ueen. They all had their duties to perform tonight, it seemed. &hen he returned to his bedroom later, .douard was already there. %+o meetings tonight'% ieran asked as he shucked off his wi0ard#s robes. %+o.% .douard slid out of bed and put his arms around ieran#s waist. %I wanted to spend some time with you. It may get messy after the announcement tomorrow, so I want to get my fill of you before I#m stuck listening to hysterical nobles for weeks.% %-ou don#t think others will take the news as graciously as Celli has'% ieran asked with a chuckle. .douard knew he was teasing, but he answered the /uestion anyway. %+ot a chance* I#m sure large numbers of nobles will take it personally. In fact,% he added, growing suddenly thoughtful, %I would not be surprised if there is a general sentiment to blame wi0ards, e!en though wi0ards were the true !ictims here.% ieran frowned. .douard was probably right. People tended to blame anything bad on wi0ards, whether wi0ards had anything to do with it or not. In this case, although wi0ards were probably not responsible, they were in!ol!ed and that would be enough. %1o it will be our fault for allowing oursel!es to be murdered and rendered down for herbal remedies'% %Probably.% .douard kissed him on the lips. %6ut you know Celli and I don#t belie!e that.% %I know.% ieran kissed him back, feeling slightly guilty that kissing .douard always relie!ed any ill feelings he might be ha!ing. It sounded simplistic when he put it in words, but .douard#s lo!e really was all he needed. $e stripped out of his clothes and "oined .douard in bed, and !ery /uickly disco!ered that .douard was /uite serious about getting his fill. They made lo!e for hours, until ieran was about ready to pass out from e5haustion. 6ut he

ne!ertheless managed to stay awake until after .douard fell asleep. >nce the king had drifted into slumber, ieran touched his forehead against .douard#s and carefully e5amined .douard with his wi0ard#s senses. (lthough ieran had ne!er told him, e!er since (kitaka had attacked .douard through dream-casting, ieran had guarded against it by checking .douard regularly for any traces of mental assault. &hen he was satisfied that .douard was untouched by any magic other than his own, he cradled .douard in his arms and promptly went to sleep. $e might ha!e more power than any wi0ard in li!ing memory, but it didn#t hurt to be well-rested before performing what he knew was going to be a difficult spell. -o-o-o-oCelli knew ieran could tell she was uncomfortable, but she hoped no one else could. The weather had cleared up, so the little stage set up in the courtyard was bathed in bright morning sunlight, but it wasn#t warm. Celli was wearing one of her winter gowns9 a long-slee!ed, high-collared dress made of dark blue brocade with sil!er trim on the slee!es and collar. 1he wore an intricate sil!er necklace studded with blue sapphires and had a matching sil!er chain with more sapphires wo!en through her hair, which she wore up to make her look more mature. The small gold circlet that she wore on semi-formal occasions rested on her head. 1he had considered wearing gold "ewelry to match the circlet, but sil!er "ewelry went better with the dress and the dress made her look regal. The waist was !ery trim and the skirt was only slightly flared, so it tended to make her look taller. 6ut soon enough she wouldn#t be able to wear most of her dresses. 1he was positi!e this morning that she could see a !ery slight bulge to her belly when she looked in the mirror before dressing. ( crowd had started to form in the courtyard, but for the moment it was primarily castle staff and a few curious citi0ens. &aiting "ust inside the palace door, Celli folded her hands in front of her waist. %3o you suppose any nobles will bother to show up this early'% %I think I would be happier if they didn#t,% .douard said. %>therwise, I#ll ha!e a hundred people with pointless demands trying to crowd into my waiting room the minute you stop talking.%

%That#s going to happen e!entually anyway,% Celli said, amused. .douard scowled. %True, but I wouldn#t mind putting it off for a few hours.% Celli gestured slightly toward ieran. %&hat do you suppose he#s doing'% The dark-haired wi0ard was standing !ery still ne5t to the stage with his head bowed, one hand resting lightly on the protecti!e railing. %$e told me he wanted to establish a link to all the places where he is planning to pro"ect your image before he puts the spell on you.% .douard ga!e her an encouraging smile. %$e said it would minimi0e how long you ha!e to be ensorcelled.% %I truly appreciate how thoughtful he is about my senseless phobia,% Celli said with a self-deprecating smile. .douard kissed her cheek. %It#s not senseless.% 7oret0 came up beside them and whistled softly. %I could feel this spell on my way here,% he said. %It#s frightening how much power ieran can draw.% $e held out one hand, the palm facing toward ieran, and closed his eyes. %That is unbelie!ably intricate,% he murmured softly. $e dropped his hand and opened his eyes. %&atching ieran work is always a re!elation,% he said. %It#s not "ust the power of his spells, which is impressi!e in itself. &hat really gets me is the number of spell threads he can wea!e and hold simultaneously. I could con"ure all the spells he#s performing right now, and I could probably wea!e them together the way he#s doing, but it would ne!er occur to me to try it and I doubt I could hold it for !ery long. $e truly is the greatest wi0ard e!er born.% Celli stared at ieran, trying to see what 7oret0 saw. 6ut she was not a wi0ard, so she could not sense the mysterious power that inspired so much fear in other wi0ards. (ll she could see was a young man whose friendship she had come to cherish. ieran turned to look at her. %I#m ready,% he said calmly. Celli swallowed and walked forward, going down the palace steps into the courtyard and immediately mounting the three steps up onto the stage. 1he walked all the way to the front and rested her hands on the railing, looking out at the crowd gathered below.

ieran walked around in front of her and looked up. %4eady'% 1he nodded, trying not to let her apprehension show on her face. ieran closed his eyes and raised his hands slightly, holding them out to either side. (t first, Celli felt nothing. Then a weight like an in!isible cloak settled onto her shoulders and slowly en!eloped her. %6egin,% ieran breathed. Celli lifted her chin and looked straight ahead. %Citi0ens of &hite 1hores, I speak to you this morning on a gra!e matter which will affect many of you personally. ( terrible crime has been committed and we ha!e all been wronged by it. It is the practice of many people, noble and common, wealthy and poor, to utili0e herbal remedies enhanced by magic of a benign and minor nature for a !ariety of ailments and maladies. I myself ha!e used such a remedy. 6ut we ha!e recently learned,% Celli paused and drew a deep breath, %that someone has been tampering with certain spells being sold here in &hite 1hores. This tampering will cause you no physical harm,% she said /uickly in her most con!incing tone. %$owe!er,% she stopped and drew another breath. %;orgi!e my hesitation, good citi0ens, for this is difficult to say.% )ooking at the worried, almost frightened, faces of the people standing in front of her, Celli imagined that the entire city had come to a standstill and that e!eryone was looking up at her, hanging on her ne5t words. %&e know beyond any doubt that innocent wi0ards were murdered and their boiled bones reduced to powder so that the inherent magic in their bodies could be used to boost the efficacy and longe!ity of these herbal remedies. (nyone ingesting one of these enhanced remedies, as I ha!e done myself, has consumed this powder.% 1omeone in the crowd in front of her cried out9 a shocked, sickened wail of dismay. Celli continued gra!ely. %7y husband, ing .douard, and I are heartbroken. Innocent men and women ha!e been murdered and we ha!e all been made complicit. Please understand that not all magic remedies are affected by this. To a!oid confusion, we are establishing stations throughout the city that will be staffed by wi0ards. Please bring any items you are unsure about to these stations and the wi0ards will check them for you. -ou will be reimbursed by the crown for any items containing the powder.% 1he paused again, looking o!er the stricken faces in front of her. %)et me reiterate that this powder will do you

no physical harm. If you belie!e you ha!e consumed it, know that it will pass harmlessly from your body within a matter of days. )ord ieran has e5amined me personally and assured me that I ha!e suffered no ill effects from the remedy I used.% It was not strictly true, but that was not the point she was trying to make. 1he wanted to reassure people. %)ike you, I am shaken and dismayed by this news, but I am disturbed e!en more by the knowledge that our fellow citi0ens ha!e been murdered for someone#s profit. 4est assured that we will bring the perpetrator of this horrible crime to "ustice.% 1he looked around slowly, making eye contact with a few of the people in her audience. 1he could see dismay and unhappiness on their faces, but not anger. That was good. (ngry people wanted to place blame. :nhappy people "ust wanted to hear how the problem would be sol!ed. %Thank you, good people, for your attention, your patience and your understanding. I am honored to be your /ueen.% 1he bowed her head and a moment later felt the weight of the spell slough away. ieran met her eyes. %&ell done, Celli,% he said /uietly. $e looked tired. .douard came to meet her at the bottom of the stage steps. $e took her hand as they walked back into the palace. %-our tone was perfect,% he said. %I knew I was right to ha!e you make this speech.% $e glanced behind them at the people milling about in the courtyard. %1till, the ne5t few days aren#t going to be fun.% ieran came up on her other side. $is hands were clasped together in front of him, hidden inside the slee!es of his robe. %Celli, has 3octor >lgin e5amined you lately'% %+ot lately. &hy'% Celli studied his face, suddenly worried. 2i!en what they had been talking about, his sudden change of topic was alarming. %I was recently gi!en the ability to feel the life-energy in people,% he answered. %+ormally, I ha!e to in!oke it, but when I touched you with my pro"ection spell "ust now,% he paused and glanced at her, %I could feel yours.% $is hesitancy released a flood of fear in Celli. %&hat are you saying'% she demanded an5iously, her hands pressed against her belly. %I could feel your life-energy,% ieran said, %and that of your unborn children.% $is eyes shifted to .douard.

%It#s not twins.% Celli stopped dead in her tracks and ieran turned to face her. %-ou#re going to ha!e triplets.% Chapter 1B: Winter%s &nset Celli managed to retain her composure until she reached the pri!acy of her bedroom, but once there, she collapsed to the floor in tears. %I#m such a fool*% she sobbed. %I ruined e!erything* &hat are we going to do' I can#t deli!er triplets* I can#t* I#m not big enough*% .douard knelt down beside her and put his arms around her. %It will be all right, Celli* +othing bad has happened yet*% ieran knelt in front of her and took her hands in his. %Celli,% he said in a !ery gra!e !oice, %do you belie!e in me'% The /uestion was enough out of place that it caught Celli#s attention, pulling her somewhat out of her grief. 1he met his dark eyes and nodded. %Then ha!e faith in me. I will not let you or your children come to harm. I ha!e all the power of the world at my fingertips. I can get you through this. 3o not be afraid.% $e spoke with deep con!iction and his calm confidence flowed through the "oining of their hands. Celli drew a gasping breath and forced herself to stop crying. %I ha!e faith in you, ieran,% she whispered. %6ut triplets8% 1he trailed off and looked from him to .douard. %(t least no one will be able to complain that the royal family is too small,% .douard said and kissed her on the lips. $e had not kissed her on the mouth since their wedding night and it caught her by surprise. 4efle5i!ely, she glanced at ieran. $is e5pression was serious, but not upset. &hen she met his eyes, he kissed her on the lips, too. $er eyes widened. ieran had ne!er kissed her on the mouth before. %3o not dwell on it, Celli,% ieran said. %There is nothing to be done about it, so the most we can do is prepare. I think you should meet with 3octor >lgin as soon as possible, though, so she can !erify what I sensed. I don#t ha!e any doubts, but my past e5perience with doctors tells me that she won#t belie!e it until she hears all three heartbeats with her stethoscope.% Celli drew a deep breath. 1he felt foolish for breaking down, but the thought of deli!ering triplets really frightened her. %I will try not to worry,% she said. 1he

smiled at them. %It helps knowing I am not facing this alone.% %That#s right,% .douard said. %-ou ha!e us.% Celli smiled and leaned her head against his shoulder. It was a relief ha!ing them both with her, their comforting touch soothing away her momentary panic. 1he supposed it was odd to be this close to her husband#s lo!er, and to remain so close with her husband despite him ha!ing a lo!er, but their relationship felt right to her. 1he was perfectly content with the way things were. %I will go and see 3octor >lgin right away,% Celli said after a moment. %It might be too soon for her to detect anything, but still...% %That#s a good idea,% .douard said. %(nd I had better get to my office. I#m sure the line has already started to form.% %:ndoubtedly.% ieran smiled at e5pression was still rather gra!e. him, but his

.douard released her and rose to his feet. %)et#s ha!e lunch together. It will gi!e me an e5cuse to break away from my meetings later.% $e held out his hand and helped Celli to her feet. %I wish I could,% she said, %but I think I should plan to meet with some of the ladies. The younger women like 7ichia 7achura who routinely used those herbal remedies may need a shoulder to cry on. (nd now that I#!e had my cry out, I think I#m prepared to offer mine.% %-ou are !ery generous, Celli,% ieran said. %( /ueen only gets to be a woman in pri!ate,% Celli replied. %7y mother told me that when she first suggested I come to court. I thought I understood what she meant then, but now I reali0e I#!e only "ust begun to understand.% 1he looked from ieran to .douard. %-ou two should ha!e lunch without me. (fter I see 3octor >lgin, I am going to take charge of the social fallout from this situation. -ou and ieran and )ord 7oret0 need to be free to pursue the criminal in!estigation.% .douard embraced her. %Thank you, Celli. That will help tremendously.% They all left her suite then and /uickly went their separate ways: .douard to his office, ieran to see )ord 7oret0 and Celli headed for 3octor >lgin#s office. 7aura was there, seated stiffly behind her desk with an e5pression of strained patience on her face. (

do0en young women were crowded into her office, all of them in tears. %6ut I drank bones*% one of the young women was wailing when Celli entered. 7aura opened her mouth to say something, but Celli held up her hand. 7aura stifled a sigh of relief. %)adies,% Celli said loudly, %please listen to me for a moment.% 1he paused to gi!e them time to notice her and stop sobbing. %I know how you feel, belie!e me,% she began. %$ow can you'*% one red-faced girl cried out. %6ecause I drank a potion, too*% Celli said with faint impatience at the interruption. %&eren#t you listening to me when I spoke in the courtyard' I used a fertility drug on my wedding night and it contained the same powdered wi0ard bone that the rest of you ha!e consumed. There are hundreds of people feeling the same dismay you are right now. If you want to cry that you consumed more than others, consider that it happened only because you could afford it. 3id you really need to take all those potions and remedies' -our fri!olous lifestyle has caught up with you, hasn#t it'% 1he glared at them, surprised to find herself scolding them rather than offering comfort. 6ut her tirade had the desired effect. The women stopped crying and stared at her. >ne e!en ducked her head in shame. %;orgi!e me for being so blunt,% she continued after a moment, %but this is something we all brought on oursel!es and the distress we feel right now cannot possibly come close to the horror e5perienced by the wi0ards who died.% +ow all the young ladies were flushed with shame and none of them would meet her eyes. %I#m sorry, your ma"esty,% one finally said. Celli was pretty sure her name was +ika >swald. %It was "ust so horrible when you announced it. I couldn#t think of anything but making sure none of that8 powder was still in me.% %I understand, 7iss >swald,% Celli said. The young woman blinked in surprise and Celli nodded to herself. 1he had gotten the name right. %&hen was the last time you took something'% %I used a sleeping draught two nights ago,% +ika replied. %I often ha!e trouble sleeping and the draughts help. 6ut I only recently started using one

from that apothecary. It was much stronger so I could use smaller doses.% %&ell, )ord ieran told me that he did not belie!e the powder would remain in anyone#s body longer than a day or two, so you should already ha!e e5creted it.% +ika clasped her hands in front of her, her eyes filling with relief. %>h, thank you, your ma"esty* That is such a relief to hear* I#m going to discard all the rest of that sleeping draught right now and go back to my old apothecary. Thank you*% +ika curtsied /uickly and hurried out. The other young ladies also offered curtsies and followed +ika, an5iously discussing when they had last used something. 7aura walked to the door and closed it firmly behind the last of them. %I want to thank you as well, your ma"esty. I had no idea what to tell them and they were "ust working themsel!es into hysterics.% 1he returned to her desk and sat down with a long sigh. %Is it true about what )ord ieran told you'% Celli sat down in a con!enient chair. %$e did say that, but he also said there was really no way to tell. $e was going by when he could no longer detect lingering traces of the fertility spell on me.% %(h.% 7aura leaned on her desk and folded her hands. %1o what brings you to see me' I doubt it was simply to rescue me from the importuning of distraught young ladies.% %It wasn#t.% Celli shifted in her chair uncomfortably. %&hen )ord ieran ensorcelled me today to pro"ect my image during my speech, he learned something about my pregnancy which he wants you to confirm, if you can. $e belie!es8% Celli hesitated and drew a /uick breath. %$e belie!es I am carrying triplets.% 7aura#s eyes widened. %&e had only discussed twins pre!iously.% %I know,% Celli replied with a nod. %6ut he said he could feel the life-energy of three babies in my womb.% %&ell, that is certainly a worry,% 7aura replied slowly. 1he got up and went to the shel!es were she stored her instruments. Taking down her stethoscope, she turned to Celli. %I may not be able to hear anything yet, but this is a new instrument de!ised "ust recently for detecting the faintest sounds inside the body. 1o let#s see what it can do. It will work better without your clothing% 1he went to bolt the door and then

helped Celli remo!e her dress. 1tretched out on her back on the e5amining table with her hands on either side, Celli looked straight up and tried to keep her breathing slow and steady, e!en though it was a little embarrassing to be lying there in her undergarments with her shift pushed up to re!eal her belly. %7y, my*% 7aura murmured. 1he !ery gently palpated Celli#s abdomen. %I think you#re starting to show.% %1o it wasn#t "ust my imagination*% Celli e5claimed. 1he ended up holding her breath when 7aura leaned o!er her with the hearing piece of the stethoscope pressed to her ear, the flared cone of the listening end placed against her belly. 7aura closed her eyes and listened without mo!ing for se!eral seconds. Then she shifted the position of the cone slightly and continued to listen with her eyes closed. (fter repeating this process twice more, she sat up with a faint frown. %)ord ieran may be right,% she said. %I hear multiple heartbeats. I can definitely distinguish two, but in certain positions, there is an echo that might be a third.% Celli swallowed, feeling some of her fear return. %I don#t think I can successfully deli!er triplets.% 7aura patted her bare belly. %-our hips are /uite narrow, which would make any deli!ery less than sure, but I agree triplets may be !ery hard for you. =ust carrying them to term may present difficulties.% %&hat should I do'% Celli tried to sound calm, e!en though her heart was racing. %&ell, we#ll treat this like any other pregnancy, for the most part,% 7aura said, %but we will ha!e to watch closely for signs that your womb is being strained. 1hould you deli!er prematurely, the babies could be lost. If I see anything I don#t like, I#m going to recommend bed rest for the duration of the pregnancy.% Celli nodded. %I understand. -ou needn#t worry that I won#t follow instructions, 3octor. Pro!iding ing .douard with heirs is my primary purpose, so I won#t do anything to "eopardi0e that.% %I#m glad.% 7aura smiled. %)et#s get you dressed. ;or the moment, there#s no reason why you can#t go about your normal duties, and it seems like you#re going to ha!e your hands full for a while.% %>h, yes,% Celli agreed, rolling her eyes. %I#m sure those ladies who were here "ust now are only the

beginning.% 1he swung her legs o!er the side of the table and sat up. %I intend to take as much of the burden off .douard and 7oret0 as possible so they can find whoe!er is responsible.% %-ou#re a good /ueen, your ma"esty,% 7aura said appro!ingly, %but don#t o!ere5tend yourself. If you feel tired or strained at all, sit down and rest right away, all right'% %I will. Thank you, 3octor >lgin.% &hen she was dressed again, Celli set out for the recei!ing room where she normally met with other ladies. It was time to assert her control o!er the court. -o-o-o-o-o-o-oThe winter started out fairly mild, but after a few weeks of cool weather, the rain showers of fall turned to snow. 6ut those wi0ards with a weather sense warned of an impending bli00ard and their prediction came true with a !engeance about a month after the official start of the winter season. (ll of &hite 1hores was brought to a standstill as powerful winds blew the hea!ily falling snow almost hori0ontally. The storm lasted nearly two days and left behind snow that was waist deep in many places. >n 6right Isle, the incon!enience of massi!e snowdrifts lasted only until students could be chased outside to practice their skills by melting it. Tank o!ersaw this acti!ity because in prior years insufficient monitoring by instructors had led to flooding in )ands .nd, when the students melting the snow had not paid attention to where the runoff was going. 6ut clearing the courtyards and walkways of e5cess snow was a regular winter acti!ity in the &i0ards $all, because li!ing with the snow was "ust too incon!enient. Tank also used this opportunity to obser!e the students# use of magic in a non-classroom setting. $is long ac/uaintance with ieran had taught him that spontaneous application of magic to practical matters was an e5tremely useful skill. -et it was also rather uncommon. $e#d met only a few students during his brief tenure as an instructor who were any good at it. 6ut the snow melting e5ercise was always fun to watch. (t the moment, he was obser!ing one particular young man who was washing the face of a snow bank with a flame he was pro"ecting from his palms. The flame was clearly not hot enough, but the young man was already sweating with the e5ertion needed to produce it. 2i!en that the student was

already at the bottom of the fourth year class, Tank suspected he was going to wash out in the spring. Producing a scorching flame was something a wi0ard should be able to do after only a few years of training. ( muffled boom sounded off to his right and a shower of snow rained down on Tank#s head. )ooking o!er, he saw an embarrassed young woman standing ne5t to an e5ploded snow bank, the entire front of her body coated in snow. %I told you the heat from the e5plosion would dissipate too /uickly to melt it*% a young man e5claimed from a safe distance. %I thought maybe the wetness of the snow would make it burn rather than e5plode,% the young woman e5plained with chagrin. %That was a good thought,% Tank called out. $e walked o!er. %1ometimes, when you#re not sure, a practical test is a good idea. 6ut scattering the snow is not the goal, so you might want to try a different approach.% %-es, Professor Trasker*% The young woman nodded e5citedly and wa!ed to the young man who had spoken to her. %)et#s try your idea now.% %(ll right*% Tank left the two planning their ne5t assault on the snow and wandered to a different part of the courtyard. 7ost of the students were "ust using flame to melt the snow, but as he passed one youthful first year student, a sharp popping sound made him stop for a second look. (s Tank watched, the student picked up a handful of snow, shaped it into a ball and then held it between his hands. $e stared intently at the snowball for a few seconds and it abruptly contracted before !apori0ing with a loud pop. %That#s an interesting techni/ue, 7ister 6iel,% Tank said. %>h, uh, yes, Professor*% the boy e5claimed with a start and his cheeks flushed. %It#s kind of slow, but it doesn#t lea!e any water.% %3id you think of this approach on your own'% %1ort of.% The boy looked up at him ner!ously. %In one of our lessons, my instructor told us that compressing ob"ects heats them up, so I thought if I compressed the snow really fast, it would heat up and melt. 6ut the first time I did it, the snow turned straight into water !apor and I thought that was better.%

Tank grinned and patted the boy on the shoulder. %,ery well done* I will be sure to mention this to your instructor so you get e5tra credit for practical application of magic. I appro!e your method. Please continue.% &ith a huge grin, the boy returned to !apori0ing snow balls. It was slow, but Tank liked the part about no runoff. )ast year#s floods in )ands .nd had made a lot of people !ery unhappy. %$ow is the snow melting going, Professor Trasker'% Tank smiled at 3i!wall as she hobbled across the courtyard toward him. %Pretty well, my lady. The courtyard should be clear before nightfall.% $e offered the lady his arm. %I thought the cold weather affected your knees.% 1he leaned on his arm and winked at him. %&e won#t discuss the two pairs of woolen pants I ha!e on under my robes,% she chuckled. %I was tired of being cooped up indoors. The air is always so fresh after a good storm.% %That#s true.% They walked slowly through the courtyard, obser!ing the students in silence. Then 3i!wall cleared her throat. %$ow is your research going'% Tank frowned. $e hated working with the wi0ard bone powder, in part because it was so fascinating. $e had e5tracted a huge /uantity of the powder from the hundreds of spells they#d appropriated from !arious apothecaries. .douard had declared it a crime to sell the enhanced spells and had confiscated all that could be found, offering compensation to the affected !endors, but only at cost. (ll of the spells had been turned o!er to the &i0ards $all and Tank had laboriously disassembled them, e5tracting the bone powder and discarding the rest. %I think ieran might be right that consuming the powder in large /uantities could enhance the magical ability of a normal person.% $e rubbed the side of his nose. %It wouldn#t last, though, and the effects wouldn#t be significant, at least not to a trained wi0ard like us. 6ut to someone unused to ha!ing any wi0ard powers, it would probably be /uite into5icating.% 3i!wall slowed to a halt, leaning hea!ily on her cane. %6ut if someone is using the powder that way, why would they sell it' &ouldn#t they want to keep it all for their own use'%

%&ell,% Tank said thoughtfully, %maybe they aren#t consuming it. It#s only a speculation, anyway. 6ut as for the other matter9 there#s no way to determine whose bones are in the powder. I can tell the powder is a blend, but I would need, well, physical material from the people we think it might be in order to compare. I think I could manage "ust with scraps of hair, but we don#t e!en ha!e that.% 3i!wall sighed. %That is unfortunate. It would be good to know for certain that we had found all of the missing wi0ards. 6ut it looks as if we will ne!er truly know.% %:nless the perpetrator is caught and made to confess,% Tank said. %3o you think that will e!er happen'% 3i!wall replied bitterly. %It#s been months since the crime came to light and no one has been implicated. In all likelihood, whoe!er was doing this has closed up shop.% %>r is waiting for the e5citement to die down,% Tank countered. %Think about it. Those spells were popular because of their strength and longe!ity. 3o you think people with money wouldn#t still buy them, e!en knowing what they contain'% %-ou#re probably right.% 3i!wall scowled. %&hich means e!ery wi0ard must continue to be !igilant about his or her safety.% Tank nodded. %I think that would be best.% ( sudden outburst of cries was immediately followed by a flood of cold water around Tank#s feet. $e sighed. %I think I had better get back to my super!ising.% %-es,% 3i!wall agreed. 1he lifted one foot carefully out of the water and shook it. %That#s a bit too chilly for my old bones. I think I#ll go back inside and wrap a blanket around my feet.% 1he limped carefully back toward the entrance to the $all and Tank went to find out what spell had gone wrong. 1omeone was definitely getting a demerit for getting )ady 3i!wall#s feet wet. -o-o-o-o-o-o.douard listened patiently as the last of the district managers reported on damage from the bli00ard. There was always something after a storm like this: collapsed roofs9 toppled walls9 flooded basements. Technically, the only thing .douard was responsible for was public housing. (ll other buildings were owned by someone and it was up to the owners to fi5 them. 6ut

it always seemed like no one had the money for ma"or repairs after a weather e!ent, e!en though bli00ards like this one happened nearly e!ery year, and he anticipated many applications for royal loans. ;rom the bitter look on )ady $asemill#s face, his treasurer was ha!ing e5actly the same thought. &hen the manager finished his report, he handed a written copy to .douard and bowed. %;or the most part, the accumulation of snow is the greatest concern, as it impedes normal traffic.% .douard put his report on the stack with the reports from the other district managers and nodded. %I understand. )ord 7oret0 will be hiring wi0ards shortly to begin clearing the ma"or thoroughfares and market s/uares of snow, but we must be careful to a!oid flooding.% &hite 1hores was currently di!ided into twenty-two districts, but .douard was seriously considering di!iding the two most crowded districts in half and raising the total to twenty-four. +o district manager liked seeing his or her district reduced in si0e, but part of the district manager#s "ob was to act as a liaison between the Crown and the people in the district. If there were too many people, the manager could not ade/uately perform this task and that was the problem .douard was now facing. %I am planning a redistricting this spring,% he said. %I would like to add two more districts to better reflect the population centers in the city. (t the moment, I am thinking about splitting 3istricts ;our and +ine9 howe!er, I am open to alternati!e plans. If you ha!e ideas to offer, please gi!e them to me in writing by the end of ne5t month. Thank you.% $e saw the looks of dismay on a few of the managers faces as they left, but no one protested. &hen they were gone, he turned to )ady (lcasin. %(re there any other matters to address today'% %+o, your ma"esty,% )ady (lcasin replied. (fter the &i0ard :prising, .douard had placed (lcasin in charge of the council agenda, a position she relished, and it had actually impro!ed the meetings considerably. 1he ne!er allowed too many topics to be brought up in a single session and she would cut off discussion when she felt a topic needed to become the sub"ect of a separate meeting. It took a lot of the heat off .douard for managing the meeting and he greatly appreciated it. %&e ha!e a few minutes left for open discussion, if

anyone has something brief to present,% (lcasin said. 1he looked around the room with lifted eyebrows, but no one spoke. They had learned not to bring up lengthy sub"ects when she said she would allow something brief. %,ery well,% .douard said. %)et#s ad"ourn for today. )ady $asemill, please come to my office tomorrow morning so we can re!iew the budget estimates for these.% $e tapped the stack of district reports. $asemill bowed her head in reply. .douard glanced at his uncle-in-law. %)ord (mbrea, I would like to ha!e a word with you in pri!ate.% %-es, your ma"esty.% Clo!is (mbrea remained in his seat as the other councilors filed out. &hen they were alone, .douard spoke. %-ou don#t often speak at these meetings, )ord (mbrea. 1urely you must ha!e some input.% Clo!is shifted slightly. %6eing new to &hite 1hores, I feel I am still learning my way around, so to speak.% %-ou#!e been here fi!e months*% .douard e5claimed. %1peak plainly, :ncle. (re you being shunned'% Clo!is smiled ruefully. %-ou ha!e a keen eye, your ma"esty. I think if I were merely an (mbrea li!ing at court, I might ha!e outlasted the natural resentment we must endure. 6ut sitting on the council seems to ha!e ignited a higher le!el of distaste than I ha!e pre!iously e5perienced. 1o I choose my moments with care during council discussions.% %I see.% .douard sat back. %I thought that might be the case.% $e drummed his fingers on the table. %(re there any nobles in particular who seem especially distraught by your appointment'% %&ell8% Clo!is hesitated. %I think it likely you already know. There are other gentlemen who feel they deser!e a place on this council more than I do and I ha!e upon occasion heard them speaking out about my lack of /ualifications for this position.% .douard sighed in irritation. %That#s what I thought. 6ut please remember that you are entitled to this position based on your relationship to the crown. People ser!e on this council for different reasons. 1o do speak up when you ha!e something to contribute. The more you interact with the other councilors, the more accustomed they will become to hearing your opinions and learning to !alue them.%

Clo!is bowed his head. %>f course, your ma"esty. I will do as you direct.% %,ery good. &hy don#t you dine with Celli and me tonight'% %&ill )ord ieran be there'% .douard had to resist the urge to smile at the /uestion. Celli seemed to be the only (mbrea making an effort to get o!er her antipathy for wi0ards. %+o. ieran will be dining with )ord 7oret0 this e!ening.% %(h. I would be honored to dine with you and my niece, your ma"esty.% %(ll right. &e will be eating in Celli#s suite.% %I will be there, your ma"esty.% Clo!is stood up and ga!e .douard a deep bow before lea!ing. .douard#s two bodyguards stepped into the doorway then and waited silently as he collected up his papers. %I need to drop these off at my office,% he said, %and then I#m going straight to my room for a hot bath. I hate being cold* &here is ieran and his warmth spell when I need it'% Chapter 1C: Childbirth >nce Celli began to show, it seemed like she got bigger e!ery day. .douard was fascinated by the process, but ieran wasn#t particularly surprised. ( number of the ser!ants at )ord Inchor#s estate had been married and had raised their families in his ser!ice. ieran was accustomed to working beside e5pectant mothers. $e knew well the litany of complaints most commonly !oiced by pregnant women, such as their swollen feet, the unsightly stretch marks on their skin, and the sudden pains when a little foot poked into a !ital organ. $e also knew the signs when a pregnancy was failing and the grief a woman suffered after a miscarriage. 1o he kept a close eye on Celli and took e!ery opportunity to touch her briefly. $is wi0ard senses allowed him to e5amine her for traces of magic without contact, but he needed to touch her physically in order to let his new ability trace the flow of life through her body. ;ortunately, the cold weather and Celli#s puffy feet ga!e him the chance to touch her nearly e!ery day as winter progressed. 1he was still managing to perform most of her duties, but now, in the dead of winter and well into her pregnancy, she tried to fit e!erything in before lunchtime so she could spend the rest of the

afternoon rela5ing in her suite. ieran usually "oined her then and would rub her feet while they talked. %(hh8 That feels really good,% Celli murmured. %(re you using a warming spell'% %-es,% ieran admitted. %It#s the same one I use on .douard when he complains about the cold.% %I can understand why he likes it.% Celli wiggled her toes. %-ou#re so sweet to do this. I could get one of the maids to do it.% 1he gestured toward .ster, who was sitting on the other side of the room sewing a dress. %I know,% ieran said. %6ut I#m here so I may well.% $e smiled as he rubbed Celli#s right foot. 6oth of her feet were sitting in his lap under a blanket which he had suffused with warmth. %7rs. Porgis, the cook at )ord Inchor#s estate, would sometimes ask me to rub her feet after a long day. 1he#d spend the whole day on her feet cooking meals for e!eryone and then she#d sit by the fire and complain about how hard she worked. 1he didn#t mind her work, you understand, she "ust en"oyed complaining about it. 6ut that#s where I learned how to do this.% %3o you rub .douard#s feet'% Celli asked the /uestion carefully, the way she always did when she asked about some aspect of his relationship with .douard. %1ometimes. 6ut he usually asks me to rub his back. $e spends a lot of time sitting and it makes him stiff.% %>h.% Celli frowned slightly and pushed on the side of her stomach. %7o!e*% she grumbled. ieran chuckled. %(re the babies mo!ing around'% %>ne of them is.% 1he pushed again. %(h, there, it mo!ed. I suppose this wouldn#t be too bad if there were only one of them. I can only imagine how much more uncomfortable it#s going to get. 3octor >lgin thinks I still ha!e ten or ele!en weeks before I reach term.% 1he continued to rub her side absently. %I#ll probably ha!e to start staying in bed before then. To be honest, it#s really starting to get difficult mo!ing around.% %3oes it hurt'% ieran asked casually. $e shifted to her other foot as he asked. %( little bit,% Celli admitted. %I feel like I#m running out of room inside.% ieran nodded. %7aybe you should start staying in bed, then. >r at least stay in your suite. -ou can

always ha!e ladies !isit you here. ( midwife once told me that walking around was one way she got o!erdue mothers to begin labor.% Celli paled. %It#s much too soon for that,% she said worriedly. %3octor >lgin said premature labor is the biggest concern she has for me.% %I agree,% ieran said. %$ow do your feet feel'% %7uch better.% Celli wrinkled her nose at him. %(nd you#re trying to distract me.% %-es, I am. 1tress isn#t good for you, either.% Celli laughed softly. %-ou always know how to make me feel better, ieran. -ou#re the best friend I#!e e!er had.% %That makes me happy.% ieran smiled at her. 3espite her discomfort, Celli#s skin was rosy with health from her pregnancy and her dark hair was lustrous. 1he had it down at the moment, pulled o!er her shoulder in a shimmering wa!e. 1he was a !ery pretty woman and he could only imagine who handsome her children would be with .douard as their father. $e remembered what Celli had said about him ser!ing as a second father to her children and a tremor of e5citement swept through him. %7ay I touch your stomach'% %>f course.% Celli watched him with a warm smile as he leaned closer and gently laid a hand on her belly. $e could feel the !ibrant life coursing through her !eins at the contact and beneath it, the three strong strands of life throbbing in the fetuses. ;or the moment, the babies were all healthy and strong, if still incomplete in their de!elopment. >ne of the babies stirred and a slender limb slid under his hand. (n odd sense of masculinity pushed against ieran#s senses. %I think this one#s a boy,% he said without thinking. %$ow can you tell'% Celli e5claimed. 1he immediately slid her hand under his to feel what he was feeling. ieran sat back and shook his head. %I don#t know. That baby "ust felt masculine to me. It#s kind of weird, actually.% Celli slid her hand around on her stomach, feeling for the other babies. %&hat about the others'% ieran shook his head again. %I don#t know. (nyway, we shouldn#t put too much faith in that.% &ind rattled the shutters and he glanced at the window. %It sounds like the storm is picking up.%

%+ot another one*% Celli groaned. %It#s done nothing but snow for weeks. I#m getting sick of it*% %-ou and e!eryone else in &hite 1hores,% ieran chuckled. %=ust about e!ery wi0ard in town, right down to the hedge wi0ards, is trying to keep the snow under control, without a lot of success.% %(re you sure someone isn#t tampering with the weather'% %I#m sure,% ieran said. %.!er since Imbario used weather magic against us during the &i0ard :prising, I check e!ery few days for signs of weather spells. 7anipulating the weather is !ery difficult to hide because of the scale of the spells that must be used.% Celli studied him /ui00ically. % ieran, "ust what are your duties at court' I know you#re .douard#s bodyguard, and mine, but e!ery time we talk, you tell me about some task you routinely do. It seems like you#re constantly working. (nd yet,% she wa!ed a hand at her feet, %you always make time to do something menial like rub my feet.% ieran almost laughed. %I#m a ser!ant at heart, remember. &e get restless if we don#t ha!e chores to do. (n idle ser!ant has no !alue.% %I think you#re priceless,% Celli said without any trace of teasing in her !oice. $e bowed his head. %Thank you, Celli.% =ean entered the sitting room and curtsied. %-our ma"esty, )ady 3ou!ram wonders if she might speak with you regarding the rebuilding commission.% %>f course, =ean, please tell her I would be pleased to ha!e her attend me here.% %(t once, your ma"esty.% =ean curtsied again and hurried out. Celli sighed and lifted the blanket off her toes. %6ack to work, it seems,% she said with a sigh. %6ut this is good. It sets a precedent for me working from here, as you suggested. .ster*% she called. The young maid /uickly set the dress aside and stood up. %-es, your ma"esty'% %Please fetch my shoes and stockings. I shouldn#t meet with )ady 3ou!ram in my bare feet.% .ster brought her stockings and shoes, and ieran mo!ed out of the way so she could kneel in front of Celli and put them on. Celli watched with a half-annoyed look

on her face. %It#s ridiculous that I can#t reach my own feet like this.% %It won#t last fore!er, Celli,% %Thank goodness*% %&ell, as you are about to become busy, I#ll be off,% he continued. %3o you ha!e a dinner engagement this e!ening'% %-es, I#ll be dining with my uncle tonight. -ou can "oin us if you wish. I think .douard#s ha!ing a dinner meeting, isn#t he'% %$e is, but I#ll let you and )ord (mbrea dine by yoursel!es. I think I still make him ner!ous.% Celli made a face. %I#!e been trying to get him o!er that, but he#s an (mbrea through and through, I#m afraid.% %It#s all right. $e#ll come around e!entually. I#m not insulted.% %I#m glad.% Celli held out her hand and %-ou#ll come and see me tomorrow'% %>f course*% %2ood. :ntil then.% %2ood afternoon, Celli.% ieran kissed her hand. $e wa!ed from the doorway on his way out and Celli wa!ed back with a smile. In the hallway, he passed )ady 3ou!ram. %2ood afternoon, my lady.% %2ood afternoon, my lord.% $ona bowed her head politely. %I hope my re/uest for an audience with her ma"esty did not incon!enience you.% %+ot at all, my lady. $er ma"esty#s rebuilding commission is /uite important. I am glad to see so many nobles participating in the plan to rebuild housing for the poor.% %(iding the unfortunate is a duty and a pri!ilege,% $ona said, lifting her chin slightly. %It is, indeed,% ieran agreed. $e inclined his head and continued on his way. +aturally, his feet carried him to .douard#s office. %2ood afternoon, 2raelin. &here is e!erybody'% .douard#s waiting room was completely empty. %The weather is keeping people away from court,% 2raelin said with a contented smile. %I must confess I en"oy the peace and /uiet.% ieran chuckled. %1o I take it his ma"esty isn#t busy.% ieran took it. ieran chuckled.

%+ot at the moment, my lord.% ieran knocked on the door to .douard#s office and went right in. %(m I disturbing you'% %+e!er*% .douard immediately dropped his pen and stood up. %I was "ust thinking about you, in fact.% %4eally'% %-es.% .douard walked around his desk and took ieran in his arms. %I was "ust thinking that we ha!en#t done anything together other than eat and sleep for what feels like months. I wish we could go away somewhere.% %+ow is hardly the best time,% ieran pointed out. %I know,% .douard sighed. %I said I wish we could, I didn#t say we should. &ere you with Celli'% %-es.% %It#s so unfair*% .douard e5claimed e5aggeratedly. %-ou spend hours of e!ery day with Celli. I bet you talk about all kinds of things and ha!e lots of fun. 3o you play games'% %+ot usually.% ieran laughed and kissed .douard warmly. %(nd Celli is busier than you think. I do spend an hour or two with her e!ery afternoon, but that#s all. 6y the way,% ieran continued seriously, %I#!e recommended that Celli start spending most of her time in her suite. 1he admitted that she#s starting to feel some discomfort.% %Is she all right'% %I think so, but we don#t want to take any risks. 1he#s already nearly as big as a woman close to term and she has weeks yet to go.% .douard#s brow wrinkled with concern. %I#m really worried about her, ieran. (re you sure you#ll be able to help her with childbirth' $a!e you seen a woman gi!e birth before'% %-es,% ieran nodded. %I fetched water and straw for the midwife during two births at )ord Inchor#s estate.% .douard chewed his lip. %3o you think Celli would want me to be present' I ha!e to admit the prospect dismays me somewhat. I#!e heard there is a lot of blood.% %There can be.% ieran stroked his hair. %6ut if your presence would comfort her, I think you should be at her side. :nless you think you#ll faint.% $e lifted an eyebrow at .douard.

.douard leaned against his shoulder. %I honestly don#t know if I would be s/ueamish. 6ut I "ust keep remembering that my mother died after gi!ing birth to me.% %Celli isn#t going to die,% ieran said firmly. %I won#t allow it.% $e lifted .douard#s chin and kissed him firmly. %&e are going to be a family. (ll si5 of us.% -o-o-o-o-o-oCelli was able to hold court in her sitting room for about another month, but by then she had gotten so big that mo!ing around was "ust plain hard. $er belly bulged out so far with the three babies inside that she sometimes had trouble keeping her balance, and then her back would /uickly start to ache from the strain of holding the awkward posture. +e!ertheless, she had hoped to a!oid bed rest for a few more weeks, but during an e5amination one morning, 3octor >lgin detected traces of moisture leaking from her birth channel. 1he ordered Celli into bed that day and ga!e her strict instructions to walk no farther than her chamber pot or the chair in front of her fireplace. Celli had ne!er been one to en"oy sitting around, but it was made e!en worse by the fact that the weather had finally started to turn. It was still !ery cold and spring was still weeks away, but the snow had finally stopped. -et here she was, stuck in her bedroom with little to do but read and hope someone would come by to !isit. .douard had finally issued a statement that Celli was pregnant with triplets and she had recei!ed hundreds of cards, some e!en written in the stumbling hand of the poorly educated, offering her good wishes for a safe and successful deli!ery. Celli found she cherished the badly spelled and lettered notes most of all, because it meant she had been accepted by the common people, which touched her heart. 1he kept one of these cards on her bedside table. >b!iously penned by a child, it included a rough drawing of a woman and three children holding hands. ;or some reason, that little picture ga!e her hope. &hene!er she felt discouraged lying by herself in bed, she would look at that card and think about the child who had drawn it. It always made her feel better. .douard and ieran !isited her e!ery day, usually separately, but sometimes together. $er uncle and 3octor >lgin also came by e!ery day, but otherwise, she was left with no company but her maids. In truth,

she didn#t mind that much. 1he was so uncomfortable that sleep was nearly impossible and she was tired and irritable most of the time. Celli was trying to read a book when 3octor >lgin came in for her afternoon e5amination, but 7aura#s arri!al forced her to admit that she had re-read the same page at least three times. 1he set the book aside with a sigh. %+ot feeling well, your ma"esty'% 7aura asked. 1he set her bag on the bedside table. %I#m "ust tired,% Celli said. %I don#t think I#!e slept properly for a week. I can#t find any position that#s comfortable.% %That#s not uncommon, unfortunately,% 7aura said. 1he carefully folded down the co!erlet and opened Celli#s robe. %$a!e you noticed any leakage today'% %+o, I don#t think so.% %2ood. The bed rest is doing its "ob.% 7aura lifted Celli#s nightdress and e5posed her abdomen. &ith gentle fingers, she carefully palpated the region. Then she got out her stethoscope and listened in a few different places. %&ell, I think e!erything is progressing normally. -ou are getting a bit crowded in there, though. (re you feeling any unusual pains'% Celli glared at her. %.!ery pain is unusual*% she growled and then made a face. %7y apologies, 3octor. 7y temper could be better.% %It#s /uite all right, your ma"esty,% 7aura chuckled. 1he put her stethoscope away. %3o you mind if I check your birth channel'% %2o ahead.% Celli shifted her legs apart so 7aura could e5amine her more intimately. %$mm8% ( faint frown stole o!er 7aura#s features. %This may feel awkward and I apologi0e in ad!ance,% she said. Celli flinched as 7aura#s fingers probed more deeply into her. %I think your channel might be starting to open. (re you feeling any pains at all'% %+o, 3octor, nothing unusual.% Celli watched 7aura#s face an5iously. %Is there a problem'% %&ell8% 7aura straightened up and wiped her hand on her smock. %There isn#t any leakage that I can feel, but the top of the birth passage feels wider to me. $a!e you been feeling birth pains'% Celli bit her lip. %To tell the truth, something always seems to be hurting, but I don#t want to be a bother. I

was under the unmistakable.%

impression

that

birth

pains

are

%That#s true enough,% 7aura said, %and I might be mistaken about your birth channel. 6ut let#s err on the side of caution. I want you to tell me about any strong pains that stretch across your abdomen or cause your back to cramp.% %-es, 3octor.% &hen ieran came to see her that night, he immediately detected that Celli was upset about something. %&hat#s wrong, Celli'% $e sat down on the side of the bed and took her hands in his. %3octor >lgin thinks I might be going into labor*% she replied. %It#s much too soon*% ieran brushed his fingers against her cheek. %It#s not too soon, "ust sooner than normal. I#!e known women who deli!ered a month early and their babies were fine.% %6ut they weren#t ha!ing three of them*% Celli snapped petulantly. %+o, they weren#t,% ieran agreed. $is !oice was soothing without being condescending and Celli stuck her lip out. %-ou think I#m being childish.% %I think you#re a woman ready to be done with pregnancy,% ieran said. $e smiled and kissed her forehead. %(nyway, .douard will be here in a minute. &e#re going to sit with you for a while, if you don#t mind.% %>f course I don#t mind*% Celli s/uee0ed his hand that was still holding hers. %I look forward to your !isits.% They chatted until .douard arri!ed and then the three of them talked, sitting on her bed. 6ut after a while, e!en though she didn#t want to admit it, Celli got tired. %I want to lie down for a few minutes,% she said, %but please don#t lea!e. I like ha!ing you here.% %&e#ll stay if you want us to,% .douard said, %but I don#t want you to o!ere5ert yourself.% %I#m fine,% Celli insisted. %I "ust want to close my eyes for a little while.% %(ll right.% They mo!ed off the bed so she could stretch out. Celli hadn#t thought she would actually sleep, but sometime later, she reali0ed she must ha!e do0ed off. The room

was dark e5cept for the light of the fire in her fireplace. (t first she thought she was alone, but then she heard soft !oices and lifted her head. ,isible o!er her footboard, she could see .douard and ieran seated on the rug ne5t to her hearth. They were sitting close together in front of the fire, turned toward each other so that the golden light of the fire highlighted their faces and gleamed in their hair. ieran had his arm around .douard#s waist and they were leaning close together, talking in low !oices. Their eyes were fi5ed on each other with such intensity that Celli wondered what they were talking about. Then, as she watched, they leaned toward each other and kissed deeply. Celli held her breath. 1he had ne!er seen them kiss as lo!ers before. The sight enthralled her. 1he lay there silently, determined not to disturb them, and a strong pain tightened like a band across her stomach. 1he gasped. ieran was on his feet in an instant. %.douard, get 3octor >lgin. It#s started.% .douard darted out of the room without a word and ieran came to her bedside. %It was only one pain,% Celli began and another sharp pain stopped the words in her throat. ieran smiled tightly and put his hands on her stomach. %It always starts with one pain.% 6y the time .douard returned with 3octor >lgin and the midwife, a woman named Cora Potts, Celli was in tears. 1he barely noticed when all si5 of her maids crowded through the doorway in their nightdresses and began lighting the lamps. The pains cramped across her stomach relentlessly and she didn#t know what to do. ( sudden sharp pain was followed by a gush of warm water between her legs and Celli cried out. %$er water "ust broke, 3octor,% %,ery well, let#s get started.% Celli had "ust enough presence of mind at that point to be curious about it when the midwife took o!er from 3octor >lgin. Cora instructed the maids to strip away Celli#s lower garments and fetch towels to sop up the moisture from her water. 6ut after that, Celli did not pay any attention to what anyone else was doing. The wracking pains of her labor were de!astating. 1he tried desperately to put a bra!e face on it, but the pain made it impossible to think about anything other ieran reported calmly.

than how much she hurt. 1o she cried out in anguish each time the pains cramped her midsection and then wept in between, knowing it was going to happen again. -o-o-o%$er channel is too small,% Cora said, her hand reaching up into Celli#s body. %The baby is crowning, but there isn#t enough room.% $er eyes flicked to ieran. %Can you do anything'% ieran put his hand on Celli#s pel!is, feeling for the bones and tissues underneath. $e was aware of the position of the midwife#s hand and the hard ring of flesh she was touching. $e closed his eyes and whispered a spell 7a 6ricker had taught him. ;or years, he had ne!er understood the point of the spell, but now he did. It allowed him to manipulate Celli#s flesh to a small degree. Carefully, he pushed on the taut ring encircling the top of her birth channel. %That#s good, that#s good,% Cora breathed. %Perfect, the head#s coming through now.% 6eneath his hand and through the spell that "oined them, ieran could feel Celli#s agony. 7anipulation of the flesh like this might be considered a form of healing, but it was not natural and it was ob!iously painful. 1he had stopped screaming earlier, mostly because she was too hoarse, but she sobbed continuously, punctuated by gasping cries when her contractions peaked. %$ere#s the first one,% Cora announced. The pale, blood-streaked baby slid into her hands, the limbs mo!ing feebly. %It#s so small,% .douard whispered. $e sat by Celli#s head, his arms wrapped around her shoulders, partly to keep her from thrashing and partly to comfort her. %They#re early,% 7aura said calmly, %and multiple-birth babies are usually smaller.% 1he accepted the baby from Cora, wiping it off between Celli#s legs because it was still attached to her through the umbilical cord. %It#s a boy.% %1he#s starting to bleed*% the maid =ean whispered an5iously. %I know*% Cora snapped. %6ut we "ust ha!e to wait for the ne5t one.% >utside the shutters, dawn was breaking. Celli#s labor was progressing relati!ely /uickly, but the sight of

blood had them all worried. &ith two more babies to deli!er, Celli could lose a lot of blood if they didn#t arri!e promptly one after the other. 6ut there was nothing ieran could do at this point. If he used a spell to ease Celli#s pain, it might stop her labor, which would make things e!en worse. Cora put her hand back in to check for the ne5t one. %(h, here we go. I feel the head.% Celli#s ne5t contraction caused the baby to crown and the one after that pushed it into the birth channel, along with a gush of fluids and blood. Celli went pale and lost consciousness. %Celli*% .douard cried an5iously. $e patted her cheek, calling her name again and again. .ster brought a damp cloth to wipe her forehead, but Celli did not regain consciousness. % ieran*% .douard looked up at him, fear making his face almost as pale as Celli#s. %It#s better that she can#t feel this,% ieran said, feeling heartless as he spoke. 6ut Celli#s pain and fear had already rubbed him raw. It was a relief to be cut off from her torment. %It#s a girl,% 7aura said as she accepted the baby from Cora. %&ait*% Cora said abruptly. %3on#t pull on the umbilical. I think it#s caught.% 1he worked her hand back in, tracing the taut blue cord. %>h, dear*% she e5claimed. %The last baby is breach and the cord goes up between his legs. .ither thing would be bad, but both8% 1he looked at ieran. %&idening her opening any more might damage her, but if we try to deli!er the baby like this, it will harm them both.% ieran nodded. %7o!e your hand,% he ordered. Taking the midwife#s place, he slipped his hand into Celli#s channel. It was slippery and warm as he reached up until he could feel the skinny bottom and one foot of the baby wedged into the opening. 6ut as he touched the baby, he could feel something else. The baby#s life-energy was weakening. It was strangling in the womb. <uickly, he pinched off the umbilical cords of the other two babies and se!ered them with a cutting spell. The cords went slack as the blood drained out of them. Then, he carefully pushed the baby back up into the womb and used any spell he could think of to rotate it until its head was resting against his palm. $e reached up and placed his other hand on Celli#s forehead. %Push Celli, for the sake of your child.% .!en unconscious, Celli heard him. $er muscles clamped

down and the baby pushed against his hand. $e guided the head through the opening and then the little body suddenly s/uirted out. The baby was blue and pinched9 its life-energy so low that ieran felt a moment of panic. Cradling the baby in his palms, he leaned o!er it and called up the healing power the madrin#s touch had sent tingling through his body. The baby began to glow faintly, a red shimmer coruscating below the translucent blue of its skin. ieran poured all his power into that small body, his awareness of e!erything else falling away. (nd then he felt the baby s/uirm and gulp a lungful of air. ( faint cry escaped its little throat. Tremendous relief washed through him and he looked up to meet .douard#s eyes. %-ou ha!e another son.% %&hat about Celli'% .douard replied gra!ely. ieran en!eloped Celli with the healing power that was already coursing through him. $e felt her bleeding slow and stop, and the myriad little tears around the e5it of her birth channel begin healing. %1he will be fine.% .douard finally managed to smile. %Thank you, ieran.% $e leaned o!er and pressed his lips against Celli#s forehead. %(nd thank you, Celli.% Celli stirred and her eyelids fluttered, but she did not waken. ieran handed the baby to the nearest maid and got out of the way so that 3octor >lgin and the midwife could take care of Celli. The maids bathed and swaddled the tiny babies, cooing o!er them and cradling the infants in their hands. %They#re so tiny, )ord %&ill they be all right'% ieran*% =ean said an5iously.

ieran touched each baby in turn, feeling the lifeenergy throbbing strongly through them. %They#ll be all right,% he said. $e glanced at .douard. %The spell that brought about their conception has made them strong. The kingdom now has three heirs to the throne.% Chapter 1D: $eirs to the Throne .douard could not help himself. $e spent most of the ne5t three days in Celli#s room, an5iously keeping an eye on her and the babies, e!en though Celli was up and about a day after the deli!ery. 3espite assurances from both ieran and 3octor >lgin that all four were doing well, he could not stop himself from worrying. 6ecause they were so small, the babies were sharing

a single o!ersi0e bassinet sitting in the middle of Celli#s bedroom. In general, they slept a lot, waking mainly to nurse and relie!e themsel!es. 3octor >lgin told him this was normal, especially for babies that were premature. 6ut still he worried. )ooking down at them lying bundled up in a little row on the mattress, he kept touching their small heads, mar!eling at how soft their skin was. Celli came up beside him. %3octor >lgin says they will become more acti!e as they get bigger.% .douard nodded. %-es, she told me that, too. I know I#m being foolish, but I can#t stop worrying.% Celli touched his arm. %It#s all right. I keep getting up in the middle of the night to look at them, e!en though my maids are taking turns sitting up with them at night when I#m sleeping.% 1he was /uiet for a moment. %.douard'% %-es'% 1he hesitated for a long time before continuing. %I#m afraid to do this again,% she finally said in a low !oice. %I was so frightened that I would not sur!i!e the pain.% 1he wouldn#t meet his eyes. %I know that ha!ing children with you is my duty, but...% %Celli,% he interrupted gently, %I understand. In truth, I had only planned on ha!ing two or three children in the first place. I admit, I didn#t e5pect to get three at once, but now that they#re here, I ha!e no problem stopping. +either do I want to risk your life trying for another when I ne!er planned on ha!ing four children. -ou are an e5ceptional /ueen. It would be foolish to risk losing all we ha!e gained when there is no need.% $e put his hand under her chin and lifted her face so that she had to meet his eyes. %3on#t feel guilty. I agree with your decision.% $er eyes grew bright and she hugged him. %Thank you, .douard* I feel so foolish for being afraid of something that is supposed to come naturally to women, but I#m so happy being a part of this family, I don#t want to lose it.% $e held her close and rubbed her back. %I admit we aren#t the most con!entional family,# he said lightly, %but we#re royalty, so we don#t ha!e to adhere to what#s e5pected.% The door opened and said with a smile. ieran entered. %$ow sweet*% he

Celli stepped out of .douard#s embrace. % ieran* I thought you were going to 6right Isle*% %I#ll be going this afternoon. 7oret0 had to run an errand outside the palace, so I#m waiting until he gets back.% $e walked o!er to the bassinet and briefly caressed each baby#s head. Celli watched him curiously. %$a!e you put a spell on the babies'% ieran smiled. %Two, actually. I placed the same spell to protect them from magic that I put on you and .douard, and I placed a second watcher spell to warn me if someone who isn#t authori0ed to care for them enters this room or their nursery. It triggers a stasis spell and locks the intruder in place until he or she can be checked.% %$ow can a spell know who is authori0ed'% Celli stared in confusion. %I marked e!eryone who is allowed to handle the babies,% ieran answered with a casual shrug. %7arked them'% %-es.% ieran scratched his head, a habit .douard recogni0ed and which he knew meant ieran was trying to think of a way to e5plain something in nonmagical terms. %The spell is kind of like a lock and the mark I put on people is like a key. &hen marked people come near the lock, they fit. :nmarked people don#t fit and they trigger the spell.% %6ut what about my uncle'% Celli asked with dismay. %$e#ll want to !isit his great-nephews and greatniece.% %I assumed that,% him.% ieran replied. %I already marked

%3oes he know that'% %-es,% ieran nodded. %I e5plained what I wanted to do and asked his permission first. $e allowed it.% %I#m shocked,% Celli admitted frankly. %I would ne!er ha!e thought :ncle Clo!is would permit himself to be touched by magic.% %-ou underestimate how much he lo!es you,% ieran said. %$e said he wanted to be first in line when 3octor >lgin said the babies could start recei!ing !isitors.%

Celli smiled. %I#m glad. I ha!e been telling him magic is not the monster we think it is. 7aybe he finally listened to me.% %I wouldn#t go that far,% ieran replied with a laugh. %-ou didn#t see the way he cringed when I touched my fingers to his forehead.% $e turned to .douard. %I#m sorry to draw you away, .douard, but I ran into emian 3obrick on the way here and he asked if he could meet with you pri!ately.% %>h, lord*% .douard scrubbed a hand o!er his face. %I#!e been a!oiding him.% %&hy'% Celli asked curiously. %6ecause I know what he wants to talk about. $e#s started pestering me about getting a seat on the council again.% >ne of the babies stirred and .douard reali0ed he had let his !oice rise. $e stepped away from the bassinet and lowered his !oice. %(fter she was fined, 7ichia apparently has been trying to sal!age her reputation at Caren &oolden#s e5pense. emian is concerned that damage to her reputation will sabotage any hopes he might ha!e of winning my fa!or.% %3id he e!er ha!e any hope'% Celli tipped her head to the side, her e5pression becoming thoughtful. %6efore his father#s betrayal, the 3obricks were one of the most respected families in the kingdom, which makes his father#s treason e!en more egregious.% %Indeed,% .douard nodded. %6ut I also do not doubt that emian knew nothing about his father#s collaboration with Imbario. (nd he was e5tremely diligent in paying his family#s fine, unlike all of the other families, who dragged their feet for as long as they could.% $e wrinkled his nose, rubbing the back of his head. %$onestly, I ha!e no real reason not to accept him onto the council other than I sometimes feel there are already too many people on it.% ieran began to laugh. %=ust talk to him* Tell him he must get )ady (lcasin#s concurrence and maybe he#ll start bothering her instead of you.% .douard grinned. %That#s an e5cellent idea* I#ll do it*% ieran and Celli e5changed an amused look and .douard made a face at them. %-ou#!e ne!er had to sit through one of these meetings where one of them starts droning on about some petty concern or other. It can be e5cruciating.%

Celli shook her head. %I should make you ha!e lunch with the ladies from my rebuilding commission. There are a few who get !ery pretentious and those meetings occasionally become rather tedious.% %1o what do you do'% .douard asked. $e felt a twinge of guilt. $e did not often ask Celli about her acti!ities, since she would usually come to him if she needed his ad!ice or guidance about something. %>rder more dessert,% Celli said, her lips twitching into a smile. %The distraction almost always works.% %(ha*% .douard e5claimed. %I#ll ha!e to remember that ne5t time I ha!e a dinner meeting. 6ut,% he hea!ed a deep sigh, %I may as well go deal with emian now. I#ll tell him that since I placed (lcasin in charge of the meeting, he needs to discuss a possible role for him on the council with her.% %6e diplomatic,% ieran said. %&hen am I not'% .douard replied. ieran "ust looked at him and .douard patted his cheek. %6eing king doesn#t always lea!e room for diplomacy. 6ut I will be nice.% %Close enough.% .douard stepped o!er to look at the babies one more time. %&e need to name them,% he said. %)et#s decide o!er dinner tonight.% %I was wondering when you were going to do that,% ieran said. %It#s not uncommon to wait with royal children,% .douard responded. %;iguring out which family members to honor by including their names in the children#s names can take time. I think I know what I would like to name them, but we can talk about it tonight.% %(ll right.% .douard left them talking /uietly o!er the bassinet and went back out into the hall. $e was not surprised to find emian waiting outside the door under the watchful eye of his and Celli#s guards. %-our ma"esty,% emian bowed deeply. %Please forgi!e me for disturbing you.% %It#s fine, )ord 3obrick.% .douard continued down the hall and emian fell into step beside him. %I assume you wanted to ask about the senior council again.%

%-es, I did.% emian clasped his hands in front of him and studied .douard#s face as he talked. %7y fiancEe and I were !ery relie!ed that no lasting harm came from the misunderstanding regarding the fertility spell. (t this point, I am !ery an5ious to pro!e my deep loyalty to the crown by pro!iding my ser!ices on the council. I belie!e I will ha!e many useful insights to offer, as I am !ery familiar with the inner workings of the kingdom.% %I ha!e no doubt about that, )ord 3obrick. 3espite his final choices regarding his loyalties, your father#s contributions were always !aluable. 6ut you#!e probably heard that I placed )ady (lcasin in charge of the council meeting. I think you should speak to her about what role you might fill on the council. I will accept her decision in the matter.% emian frowned. %I did speak to )ady (lcasin earlier and she indicated that she did not ha!e the authority to appoint seats on the council.% %3id she'% .douard suppressed a smile. 1o emian had already tried that path and been rebuffed. %I#ll speak to her. Perhaps she has ideas about the structure of the council of which I#m unaware.% %(h, of course, your ma"esty.% emian sounded disappointed and a little irritated. %Perhaps we could discuss this matter again in a few days'% %Perhaps,% .douard replied noncommittally. %Then I#ll bid you good day.% emian definitely sounded irritated now. $e sketched a /uick bow. %2ood day, )ord 3obrick.% .douard continued on to his office. $e was starting to wonder if putting emian on the council would be enough. The man ob!iously wanted to become a prominent figure in the kingdom again. &ould he be happy with "ust a seat on the council, or would he then start lobbying for (lcasin#s position as the council chair' (nd if he put emian on the council, was Curdan 7achura likely to stay /uiet for long' $e had been keeping a low profile since his daughter was fined, but that was sure to change if emian did get his way. .douard sighed. $e was really getting tired of politics. -o-o-o-oieran hadn#t wanted to go to 6right Isle, but it was hard to ignore a summons from )ord 2a!ilan. 6ut he was surprised when the ferry nudged up to the dock in )ands .nd, because it wasn#t 2a!ilan who was waiting

for him. ( half-do0en or so wi0ards stood on the dock waiting impatiently for the ferry to tie up and Instructor +ilda, who was the resident e5pert on healing spells, stood at the forefront. The angry glower on her face as she stood there with her arms crossed was so intimidating that no one stepped onto the gangplank when it was run out. ieran sighed. $e edged his way through the crowd of an5ious people waiting to disembark and descended the gangplank first. %Instructor +ilda,% he said patiently, %you should ha!e waited farther up the dock. -ou#re frightening the passengers.% +ilda glared at him. %I didn#t want to gi!e you the chance to slip away.% %&hy would I do that'% ieran glanced briefly at the other wi0ards before returning his ga0e to her face. $e knew a handful of them, but none of them well. %&as it you who asked 2a!ilan to send for me'% %>f course it was*% +ilda snapped. %I got tired of waiting for you to come o!er and e5plain yourself.% %.5plain myself'% ieran started up the dock to force +ilda to mo!e away. $e wasn#t sure any of the passengers would disembark with her standing there looking so threatening. )ands .nd residents might be used to wi0ards, but an angry wi0ard was still something most people tried to a!oid. %-es.% +ilda stamped along angrily beside him. ieran remembered being shorter than the copper-haired instructor when they first met, but now he stood slightly taller. %I "ust learned that you used a healing spell to sa!e the life of one of <ueen Celli#s triplets,% she continued furiously. %I distinctly recall that when you first came to the &i0ards $all, you completely lacked any trace of skill in this area.% 1he glared at him accusingly. %Please e5plain the discrepancy.% %>h, that.% ieran shrugged slightly. %The madrin whose life I sa!ed as a child ga!e me this power last year. I didn#t know why at the time, but )ady (sita said that )ord Colwyn belie!es that some madrin are precogniti!e. 1o it may ha!e foreseen the danger to Celli#s baby.% %It ga!e you this power'% +ilda threw her hands up in the air. %$ow' (nd why didn#t you tell me'% The dismayed, furious and e5cited look on her face was almost comical. ieran had to look away to keep

from laughing. %I#m sorry, +ilda, I simply didn#t think of it.% %3idn#t... think...% +ilda choked out. 1he wa!ed her fists in the air. %$ow could you not ha!e instantly reali0ed that something this significant would be of the utmost interest to me and my colleagues'% 1he finally thumped him on the arm with one of her fists. %I e5pect you to tell me e5actly how the madrin ga!e you this power, e5plain how it works and then demonstrate it. Is that completely clear' I will not allow you to lea!e this island until I understand e!erything.% %I ha!e to be back at the palace by nightfall. $is ma"esty e5pects me to dine with him.% +ilda almost punched him again. %-ou eat dinner with the king all the time* $e can wait* -ou#!e been hiding !aluable information from me and my needs take precedence.% ieran had to suppress the urge to laugh again. +ilda#s outrage was e5tremely amusing. %,ery well, Instructor,% he said. %6ut I reser!e the right to decide when I#!e told you e!erything I can.% 1he started to protest and he held up a hand. %I promise I will hold nothing back, +ilda. The healing is still fresh in my mind so I will do my best to describe it.% 1lightly mollified, +ilda pushed her lips out. %,ery well. &e#ll use my classroom. It#s empty right now.% ieran e5perienced a momentary flashback to his student days when he stood at the front of +ilda#s classroom, with her and the other wi0ards seated at the desks watching him intently as he recounted the story of his encounter with the madrin. &hen he began to describe healing the third triplet, e!eryone sat forward eagerly. +o one said a thing until he finished speaking and then they all e5ploded into con!ersation at once. ieran "ust waited for +ilda to bring the group to order. %6e /uiet, e!eryone*% +ilda interrupted loudly. %)ord ieran, you say you did not need to speak a spell to in!oke the healing'% %+o, but I fre/uently don#t speak when I cast spells, so I#m not sure that#s a specific feature of this ability.% %(h, so perhaps the ability is enhanced by your rogue powers'% ieran smiled slightly. It amused him now when wi0ards referred to the unusual aspects of his abilities

as rogue powers. In some respects, it was an easier way to describe it. %Possibly.% %Instructor +ilda,% one of the wi0ards said, %may I !olunteer to e5perience )ord ieran#s healing power'% %Certainly, =ac/ues.% +ilda wa!ed him forward. =ac/ues was from a class two years ahead of ieran. ieran remembered him mainly because most people thought he was arrogant and also because, despite his youth, his pale hair was already starting to recede. $e had e!en less of it now than ieran recalled. =ac/ues approached him with his chin lifted slightly. $e produced a knife from under his robes and calmly sliced open the palm of his hand. 6lood dripped from the wound as he held his damaged appendage out to ieran. ieran touched the back of =ac/ues# hand. $e could feel the wi0ard#s life-energy pulsing through his body. $e was of course in no danger from the wound, but ieran could ne!ertheless feel the frayed threads of the in"ury twining through the pulse. 3rawing a breath, he wo!e the threads of the in"ury back into the o!erall flow. (s he did so, the bleeding stopped and the cut knitted closed. &ithin seconds, the in"ury was gone and not e!en a scar remained. +ilda and the other wi0ards crowded around, studying =ac/ues# hand. %$ow did it feel'% +ilda demanded. %It was hot and itchy while it was healing,% =ac/ues said, %but otherwise, there was no discomfort.% %4eally'% %I wonder if a larger in"ury would be more uncomfortable while it healed'% another wi0ard spoke up. $er gray hair hung loose around her shoulders and she poked at =ac/ues# palm with a long fingernail. %I#d be curious to see a broken bone healed.% %$m...% +ilda said, her lips pursing thoughtfully. ieran waited with lifted eyebrows to see if someone would !olunteer to ha!e a bone broken for the e5periment. %Could you heal a broken bone'% the gray-haired wi0ard asked ieran. %I don#t know,% ieran answered honestly. %I#!e ne!er done it. 6ut then, that was the first time I healed a cut, so I think I could do it. 6ut do consider9 the baby wasn#t in"ured. $is heart had stopped beating from strangulation and he had not yet started breathing. I

simply induced his blood to flow until he started breathing on his own and his heart started beating again. $e "ust needed a little help.% %(nd with =ac/ues'% +ilda asked, her eyes pinned on his face intently. %The in"ury disrupted his life flow, so I smoothed it out and the in"ury went away.% %&hat does this life flow feel like'% someone else demanded. ieran hea!ed a small sigh and proceeded to try to describe something for which he had no good analogies. 6ut they listened closely to e!erything he said, inter"ecting additional /uestions and e5cited comments as he talked. In the end, they concluded that what he was describing matched the documented abilities of past wi0ards known for their healing powers. %I suppose the reason it doesn#t seem to tire you is because of your rogues powers,% +ilda finally concluded. %6ut otherwise, what you#re doing isn#t especially unusual. That#s a little disappointing. I was hoping for something completely new, coming from a madrin like that.% ieran shrugged. %The madrin ga!e me the ability, but I am still a human wi0ard. There#s no reason why it should be particularly different from something any other wi0ard could do.% %.5cept for the insane le!el of power you can in"ect into the spell,% +ilda amended. %-es, e5cept for that,% ieran agreed with a smile. %&ell,% +ilda continued. %I suppose there really isn#t anything else to discuss. Thank you for your time, )ord ieran.% %-ou#re welcome, Instructor. (nd I#m sorry I didn#t think to speak to you before.% +ilda wa!ed a hand. %That#s all right, I suppose,% she said magnanimously. %-ou do ha!e your duties at court, after all.% %Indeed.% ieran didn#t waste any time getting back down to the docks in case +ilda changed her mind. The e!ening ferry had finished boarding, but the gangplank was still down. ieran hurried up thankfully. Captain +eeda was waiting at the top. %&ere you waiting for me, Captain'%

%-es, my lord.% The captain inclined his head politely. %I know you don#t normally stay on the island o!ernight, so I thought I#d gi!e you a little more time to "oin us.% ieran smiled broadly. %Thank appreciate your thoughtfulness.% you, Captain* I

%It#s my pleasure, my lord.% &ith another slight bow, +eeda turned away and raised his !oice to a shout. %Cast off*% (s the boat put out into the lake, ieran walked to the railing. The sun was already sinking into the hori0on. It would be dark before they got back to &hite 1hores. $e hoped .douard and Celli would wait for him. $e was e5cited to learn the names .douard was planning to gi!e the children. $e stood impatiently at the railing, watching as lights began to show on the far shore. The ferry#s lights reflected off the water as night fell and the lights from the city sparkled in the distance. It was pretty, but ieran had seen it before. Tonight, he "ust wanted to get back. .!en though it was full dark by the time the ferry tied up at the dock in &hite 1hores, se!eral carriages were still waiting to pick up passengers, so ieran was able to get back to the palace fairly /uickly. >nce there, he went straight to Celli#s suite, since that was where they usually ate when the three of them dined together. % ieran*% Celli e5claimed when he walked in. %I was starting to wonder if you were going to stay on 6right Isle o!ernight.% %I was afraid they might try to keep me,% he replied. $e kissed her on the cheek. %The woman in charge of studying the healing arts was a little offended that I hadn#t told her I had ac/uired this ability.% %I can see her point,% .douard said from where he sat at the table. %-ou probably should ha!e mentioned it.% ieran shrugged. %I thought (sita would tell Colwyn and that he would e!entually tell 2a!ilan.% .douard snickered %-ou "ust didn#t want them to ha!e another reason to poke and prod you and wonder when you might go rogue.% $e held out his nearly empty wineglass. %(nd I#!e already finished this waiting for you. 4efill it, please.% ieran made a face as he took .douard#s glass, but he leaned o!er and kissed the young king briefly before taking his glass to the sideboard to refill it from the decanter. %(nyway, since it took so long, I didn#t talk

to anyone else, so I don#t ha!e any new information from the &i0ards $all.% %That#s all right,% .douard said. %I#m sure they#d send someone o!er if they had anything new to tell me.% ieran brought .douard his glass and took his seat at the table, where a filled wineglass already waited for him. %1o the important thing is: did you talk about baby names without me'% %>f course not*% Celli e5claimed with a laugh. %It#s not that I ha!e anything to contribute,% ieran continued. %I "ust want to sit here and smile while you two discuss it.% Celli shook her head at him. %I e5pect you to participate fully, ieran*% %1o do I,% .douard echoed. $e sipped his wine. %(nyway, I had thought to name the oldest boy (ntonio $eston, in honor of my father and grandfather. >f course, (ntonio is my second name, so e!eryone will assume I am naming him for myself, but my second name was actually chosen to honor my maternal grandfather.% %I like that*% Celli said. %(nd I think it#s fine if e!eryone thinks we named him after you. &hat about our daughter' There is a name that has been in my family for many years that I /uite like. )ida (mbrea was the head of our family for nearly eighty years following the &i0ard &ars. 1he was said to ha!e been brilliant in business and !ery politically astute.% .douard rubbed his chin thoughtfully. %I had been thinking, if I had a daughter, that I would like to name her after my mother. 6ut her name would ser!e well as a second name, I think. That would make our daughter )ida ,ictoria. &hat do you think'% %It#s beautiful*% Celli looked at said a word.% ieran. %-ou ha!en#t

%I ha!e no family of my own,% ieran replied simply. %There is no one for me to honor.% %6ut you sa!ed the littlest one#s life*% Celli reached out to touch his hand. %It would only be right if you also ga!e him his name.% %I agree,% .douard said. $e met ieran#s eyes. %It doesn#t matter if it#s a blood relation. (nyone you knew who left a positi!e impression on you is worth considering.%

ieran looked down. (nyone who left a positi!e impression' There were any number of people who had touched his life growing up, but only one person who had truly shaped him. %7a 6ricker#s maiden name was 6riden. 1he ne!er told me her gi!en name, but she once said that since she had taught me e!erything she knew, she should probably gi!e me her surname, too. I don#t think she was "oking, but I ne!er used it for myself. 1till, the name has always been special to me since then.% $e looked up to find .douard and Celli staring at him. Celli#s eyes were bright. %Then we shall use it,% .douard said, his !oice unusually deep. %>ur youngest son#s name will be ,incent 6riden.% $e looked from ieran to Celli and lifted his wineglass. %To our children.% Celli and ieran lifted their glasses in a solemn salute. (fter a brief pause, they all took a sip. %I will make an official proclamation tomorrow,% .douard said. %6ut as of this moment, (ntonio $eston 7ailar is officially the heir to the throne.% Chapter 1F: Assault The babies were a month old when 3octor >lgin decided they were ready to mo!e to their nursery. Celli#s room felt empty at first. 1he kept waking up trying to hear the babies breathing and would ha!e to go into the nursery to check on them. 6ut despite their small si0e, the babies were growing well and starting to become more responsi!e. Three nurses were assigned to tend them full-time and to help Celli feed them. Celli insisted on feeding the babies herself at least once each day, but she hadn#t reali0ed how e5hausting it was trying to feed three growing infants until the nurses started helping. 1he was able to resume all of her duties as /ueen and it felt right. .douard started planning a presentation ceremony for the children once 3octor >lgin ga!e her appro!al and he wanted the e!ent to be as public as possible. &ith summer full upon them, the weather had turned especially fine and 3octor >lgin saw no reason why the babies couldn#t be taken outside. 1o he ordered a stage to be erected in the courtyard again and scheduled a !iewing. %&e#ll do the ceremony three times,% .douard told Celli and ieran o!er dinner one night. %&e#ll do all the noble families first, take a break, and then do two groups of commoners with breaks in between. &e won#t be able to show them to e!eryone, but I think

it#s important that people see the babies and know that they really e5ist.% %3o you think anyone has doubts'% aloud. ieran wondered

Celli snorted. %-ou ha!en#t been listening to the rumors,% she said. %7y maids ha!e told me of two particularly annoying ones. >ne says that I faked the entire pregnancy to shore up my position as /ueen, and the other says I lost the babies in childbirth and we#re hiding it.% ieran stared. %-ou#re kidding*% %1he#s not,% .douard said as Celli shook her head in disgust. %7oret0 has heard both of those rumors as well. That#s why I don#t want to wait any longer to do this. I#m sick of people stewing about the succession.% %6ut do0ens of people ha!e seen the babies*% e5claimed. ieran

%True, but all of them are close to the royal family,% Celli pointed out. %That makes them suspect.% ieran shook his head. %I can#t belie!e it* $ow long will it be before people "ust accept things as they are'% %-ears, probably,% .douard said resignedly. %The ingrained dislike of the (mbrea family goes back centuries. &hile some people ha!e decided to distinguish between Celli and the rest of her kin, they are making a distinction. It hasn#t lessened their animosity toward her family much at all.% %(nd there are /uite a few who are not making any distinction,% Celli said. 1he pushed the remains of her dinner around on her plate with her fork. %I had really thought I was making headway, but since the babies were born, I#!e been hearing a lot more negati!e comments. It seems that many people resent the idea of ha!ing anyone with (mbrea blood sitting on the throne in &hite 1hores. They were willing to put up with me when there was still a chance you might di!orce me and marry someone else. 6ut with legitimate heirs to hold up, they#!e started speaking out.% .douard frowned. %-ou should tell me if it gets bad.% %I will,% Celli promised, %but you can#t really fine people for ha!ing an opinion.% %-es, I can.% .douard spoke with complete seriousness, but then he smiled at Celli#s alarmed

look. %(ll right, I won#t. 6ut that doesn#t mean I won#t throw my royal weight around if I think it#s necessary.% $e looked at ieran. %(nd you should, too. If you "ust glower at people when you hear them speaking ill of Celli, they#ll stop.% %They#ll stop speaking openly,% ieran said gra!ely, %but they won#t stop speaking. (nd if we punish someone for ha!ing an opinion, it#s not going to make Celli any more popular.% %I suppose,% thoughtfully. .douard said, pursing his lips

%I think Celli should continue as she has been and keep focusing on programs that benefit common people,% ieran went on. %If the common people come to lo!e her and want her as /ueen, the nobles will ha!e to do the same or risk looking petty and spiteful.% %&isely spoken, as always, my lo!e,% .douard said. $e saluted ieran with his wine glass. Celli sipped her wine in silence. 1he hadn#t initially started out planning to win the hearts of the regular citi0ens, but she had to agree with ieran#s assessment. (nd fortunately, all of her current pro"ects were focused on helping the poor and indigent. 1he would "ust ha!e to accept the slow pace of change. $ow long had it taken for her to get comfortable around 7oret0 and some of the other wi0ards she saw regularly' (nd she still felt uncomfortable around strange wi0ards. 1he sighed. %I suppose it was too much to hope that a fa!orable impression of me would translate into goodwill toward my family,% Celli said. %6ut I won#t gi!e up. I will change people#s opinion of us by the time our children are old enough to understand what people are saying.% %&e will all work toward that goal,% .douard said. ieran nodded in agreement and Celli smiled at them warmly. It was easy to belie!e anything was possible with these two on her side. >n the morning of the presentation, .douard assigned additional guards to surround the stage and line the walkway from the palace entrance to the steps. 6ut it was "ust for show. 6efore they left the nursery, ieran herded e!eryone into a group in the middle of the room. Celli was a little ner!ous, but the three nurses held the babies with e5pectant looks on their faces.

The two do0en guards who were going to escort them to the entrance watched with no e5pression at all. %The guards his ma"esty has assigned will protect us from physical attack,% ieran said. It always surprised Celli when ieran stepped into his role as royal bodyguard. The change in his manner was striking. $e stood !ery straight and his eyes became intense and focused. 1ometimes it frightened her a little, because it reminded her that he was, indeed, the most powerful wi0ard in the kingdom. %$owe!er, I will be surrounding us with a warding spell that will ensure that nothing touches us.% The way he said #nothing# sent a shi!er down Celli#s spine. %-ou will be aware of the spell, so please be prepared.% $e lifted his hands with the palms facing toward them. $is lips mo!ed but he didn#t !oice the words aloud. Celli felt the spell surround them, but it didn#t settle onto her the way the pro"ection spell had. This time it felt like they were in a bubble, e!en though she could not see any change to the air around them. ieran dropped his hands. %)et us proceed.% They walked out into the hall mostly single file. Celli and .douard led the way, followed by the nurse carrying (ntonio, then )ida and her nurse, and then ,incent with his nurse. ieran brought up the rear. The guards flanked them on either side, the hea!y tread of their feet oddly comforting. 1er!ants lined the hallways and they called out good wishes as the royal party passed by. In the courtyard, a cheer went up when they stepped outside. The courtyard was packed with nobles in their finest garments. .douard led the way up onto the stage with Celli at his side, but e!eryone else stopped at the foot of the steps. .douard held up his hands for silence and the crowd /uieted. %7y lords and ladies, on this auspicious day, I present to you the newest members of the royal family.% $e turned and held out his hands. (ntonio#s nurse brought the boy up the steps and handed him to .douard. $e held the baby up. %I gi!e you (ntonio $eston 7ailar, heir to the throne.% ( cheer went up, louder than Celli had e5pected. 1he looked /uickly from face to face to see who looked genuinely happy. 1ome did, but many more did not. 1he turned and held out her hands. )ida#s nurse deposited the infant girl in her arms. 1he turned back to the crowd and held the baby up. %I gi!e you )ida ,ictoria 7ailar,% .douard said loudly.

(nother loud cheer greeted their daughter. ieran then took ,incent from his nurse and climbed up onto the stage, stopping on the other side of Celli. $e held ,incent up. %I gi!e you ,incent 6riden 7ailar,% .douard stated in a clear !oice. $e watched stoically as the crowd cheered for his children. (fter a short while, he held up one hand, since (ntonio was nestled into the crook of his other arm. %I hope you find as much "oy in the promise of these three royal children as I do.% They remained on the stage for a few more minutes and then .douard turned back toward the steps. %That#s enough of that. )et#s get out of the sun until it#s time for the ne5t one.% $e led the way down the steps, but when the nurse offered to take (ntonio from him, he cradled the child in his arms. %I#ll hold him for a little while longer,% he said. $e led the way to a waiting room near the entrance and they all went in. &hen the door was closed behind them and the guards had taken up positions around the perimeter of the room, .douard turned to ieran. %3id you feel anything'% %-es.% ieran nodded. %I felt three probing spells. I couldn#t tell specifically what they were probing for, but possibly "ust trying to make sure we were holding li!ing beings.% %&as that all'% %-es.% Celli listened to the e5change with a frown. %&ere you e5pecting something to happen'% .douard shrugged. %It#s better to be careful.% Celli stepped close to him and lowered her !oice. %3o you think someone would try to assassinate the babies'% $er !oice wa!ered and she bit her lip unhappily. 1he hated sounding like a weakling. .douard looked down at (ntonio. The boy was awake but still, watching his father drowsily. %(s we#!e discussed, some people are not ready to accept a ruler with (mbrea blood. :ntil that sentiment changes, we ha!e to be on our guard. I ha!e no regret about choosing you as my /ueen and I lo!e these children dearly. I don#t belie!e the (mbreas were any guiltier of collaboration during the &i0ard &ars than any other noble family who sur!i!ed that time.% %Thank you, .douard.% Celli tugged at the coil of hair spilling o!er her right shoulder. %I guess we#ll "ust ha!e to be patient.%

%That#s the plan.% $e smiled at her warmly. %+ow I#m going to do paperwork while we wait. The rest of you can talk amongst yoursel!es. -ou won#t bother me.% $e handed (ntonio to his nurse and turned to one of the guards. %Please tell 2raelin to come in now.% Celli sat on the other side of the room with ieran and watched .douard work. $e was !ery efficient. &ith 2raelin standing o!er him, he read through se!eral do0en pages, initialing some of them. 1he glanced at ieran. $e was also watching .douard, but his e5pression was unreadable. $e still had ,incent nestled in one arm. 1he studied the baby for a moment. %,incent looks like you,% she said. ieran started and looked down at the baby. %-ou know that#s impossible. I think he has .douard#s eyes.% %Possibly.% 1he caressed ,incent#s small head. %&hat were you thinking about "ust now'% ieran#s ga0e returned to .douard. %I was thinking about when .douard and I first met. $e#s always been so studious. $e has the right temperament to be king. $e#s really a bureaucrat at heart.% %I#m not sure he would be characteri0ation,% Celli chuckled. %7aybe not,% happy with that

ieran agreed with a smile.

%Is it hard keeping the warding spell on all of us'% she asked. The uncomfortable sensation of being in a bubble had not faded. ieran shook his head. %+o. $olding spells is essentially effortless for me. It#s much easier to hold the spell than recast it.% %Isn#t that unusual'% %It is one of the things other wi0ards resent about me,% ieran acknowledged. %(ll wi0ards can hold onto spells to maintain them, but it#s a constant drain on their power. The stronger the spell, the bigger the drain. If the spell is e5tremely powerful, e!entually the wi0ard becomes unable to maintain it. I don#t ha!e that problem because my power resources are !ery large.% %(nd that#s why people sometimes say you#re a rogue.% %Partly, but mostly it#s because of the way I cast spells. 7y power le!el is "ust an added insult.% $e

grinned as he spoke and Celli reali0ed that being thought of as a rogue didn#t really bother him. ,incent stirred and made an unhappy whining sound, his little face scrunching up into a frown. %:h, oh*% Celli said. %I think he#s hungry.% ,incent#s nurse appeared in front of them. %I#ll tend him, your ma"esty. The others are hungry, too. (lways at the same time, these three*% she laughed. %-ou can tell they were born together.% 1he took ,incent and retreated to a corner with the other nurses. Celli sighed. %I miss feeding them, but I reali0e that I "ust don#t ha!e the time for it if I e5pect to attend to my duties as /ueen. 6ut I sometimes wonder how less fortunate women with twins or triplets get by.% %I think they don#t sleep much,% ieran said. %&e nobles don#t e!en recogni0e all the pri!ileges that wealth gi!es us, do we'% Celli murmured. The thought troubled her. $ow little did she really now about the li!es of ordinary people' %6ut there are responsibilities, too,% ieran said. %It is how one meets those obligations while en"oying those pri!ileges that separates good nobles from bad ones.% %I wonder where I fall.% ieran caught her hand and s/uee0ed it. %-ou#re one of the good ones, Celli. +e!er doubt yourself.% %Thank you, ieran.% 1he leaned against his shoulder, smiling contentedly. Talking things o!er with ieran always made her feel better. The two presentations in the afternoon were more satisfying. The crowd cheered loudly as soon as .douard and Celli stepped up onto the stage and it took a lot longer to /uiet them before .douard could speak. The naming of each child produced similarly loud cheers, along with shouted blessings and cries of good wishes. )ooking at the e5cited, happy faces of the people nearest her, Celli felt more encouraged than she had that morning. It did appear that the path to full acceptance for her lay through the common people. -o-o-o-o-oThere was no reason for the babies to lea!e the nursery again after the presentation, which suited .douard "ust fine. $e preferred it because, pri!ately, he was still concerned about their safety. $is own childhood e5perience of being poisoned by a trusted

member of his father#s staff made it !ery hard for him to ignore irrational fears. $e managed to hide his feelings from Celli, but it was impossible to keep it a secret from ieran. ieran knew him so well that, e!en without the spell that made his bodyguard pri!y to all his feelings, ieran would ha!e known. 6ut .douard trusted ieran and ieran said he would keep the babies safe, so .douard managed to go about his duties and at least suppress the constant nagging fear. 6ut he couldn#t help /uestioning the moti!ation of e!eryone who tried to get close to the royal family, especially people he already didn#t like. 1o when Curdan 7achura arri!ed in his waiting room and re/uested an audience two days after the presentation, his gut reaction was to refuse. %I don#t ha!e time for him*% 2raelin simply lifted an eyebrow and waited, not mo!ing from in front of .douard#s desk. .douard scowled. %-ou#re going to tell me I ha!e plenty of time.% %There is no one else waiting at the moment and I ha!e only a few more papers for you to re!iew.% %>h, all right*% .douard sat back and glared at his secretary. There was no denying 2raelin knew his schedule better than he did. %1end him in.% 2raelin bowed. %(t once, sire.% $e returned to the door and opened it. %$is ma"esty will see you now, )ord 7achura.% 7achura swept into the room with a haughty look in his face. $e appeared offended that he had not been admitted immediately. %I hope I am not disrupting your schedule, ma"esty,% he said with false graciousness. .douard considered making him stand there while they talked, but decided that would "ust be rude. %1it down, )ord 7achura. &hat brings you by today'% 7achura dropped into a chair. %I understand that you are planning to appoint emian 3obrick to your senior council.% .douard managed to keep his annoyance off his face. %The management of the council is between me and the council chairwoman,% he replied. %-es, but I do not understand why you would place consideration of someone whose family betrayed you in the past abo!e me. &e 7achuras ha!e always been

faithful ser!ants of the crown.% 7achura#s tone was faintly condescending and it grated on .douard#s ner!es. $e considered telling the man that his attitude was what was keeping him off the council. Instead, he tapped his fingers on the desk. %)ord 7achura, I do appreciate your eagerness to pro!ide your ser!ices to this kingdom, but sitting on my senior council is not the only way. The current members of my council are meeting my needs. )ord 3obrick#s appointment is not a certainty. 7oreo!er,% here he paused and met 7achura#s ga0e directly, %your daughter#s actions, while not rising to the le!el of treason, did endanger the li!es of my wife and children, so in that regard, your family#s position is only marginally better than the 3obricks.% 7achura#s e5pression hardened into a dark glare. %I see,% he said, clipping the words off. %Is that a firm no, then, your ma"esty'% .douard stifled a sigh. %It is a suggestion that you consider your already comfortable position in the kingdom, )ord 7achura. >btaining a seat on the council would not substantially impro!e your family#s standing.% %,ery well.% 7achura stood up and inclined his head. %2ood day, your ma"esty.% $e stamped out, his back stiff with anger. .douard watched him go with a frown. &hy was it so important to 7achura to ha!e a seat on the council' Council members did en"oy more influence in the kingdom, but otherwise, they were no richer than anyone else. (nd there were a few more powerful families who did not sit on his council, for one reason or another. $e sighed. %7aybe he#ll "ust gi!e up now if he thinks I said no,% he muttered. $e ran his fingers through his hair. %I wish ieran was here.% $e picked up his pen and prepared to get back to work. %I need a holiday.% Celli was busy that e!ening, so .douard dined alone with ieran in their suite. Their dinner was already on the table when he walked in and ieran stood beside it, his arms folded across his chest and an amused smile on his face. %-ou couldn#t wait until after dinner to check on them'% .douard flushed. $e should ha!e reali0ed that ieran would know he had gone to the nursery on his way back from his office. %-ou know I worry about them,% he said.

%-es, I know.%

ieran#s smile was understanding.

.douard sat down at the table. %It would be different if I could be aware of them all the time like you are,% he went on. %6ut I ha!e to rely on e!eryone else. That#s what my father did.% $is !oice dropped as sadness suddenly o!ertook him. %(nd look what it cost him.% ieran stepped behind him and put his hands on .douard#s shoulders. %I will not let you suffer as your father did. +or as you did.% $e leaned o!er and kissed the top of .douard#s head. %$a!e faith in me.% .douard clasped ieran#s left hand resting on his shoulder. %I do,% he said softly. %Please don#t interpret my worry as lack of trust. I can#t seem to help feeling as I do.% %I understand.% ieran took his seat and =ustus stepped forward to pour the wine. %Thank you, =ustus,% .douard said. %-ou don#t ha!e to attend us this e!ening.% %,ery well, your ma"esty.% =ustus finished filling their glasses and set the decanter on the table. %2ood night.% &hen =ustus was gone, .douard smiled at ieran. %I hope you don#t mind. I "ust want to be alone with you for a while.% %&hen ha!e I e!er minded being alone with you'% .douard sighed. %-ou and Celli are both too good to me,% he said. %7y beha!ior with you is hardly e5emplary.% %-ou are fulfilling your obligations to your crown,% ieran said /uietly, %and I will ne!er speak against your decisions in this regard because I want to be with you.% $is gray eyes held .douard#s for se!eral seconds. %(nd neither would Celli, because you ga!e her what she wanted as well. )et others "udge us if they wish, but we are happy as we are.% .douard shook his head, but he was smiling. %I#m right. -ou do spoil me.% They continued to talk as they ate their dinner and .douard told ieran about 7achura#s !isit. ieran scowled. %&hy does he need to be on the council' $is family is rich enough. &ould being on the council benefit him that much'% %+ot really. 7ostly all it would gain him is prestige,% .douard replied. %I honestly don#t understand why it#s so important to him. I#ll ha!e to ask Celli. 1he can be

e5tremely insightful when it comes to ferreting out a nobleman#s moti!ations.% %That#s a good idea.% .douard changed the sub"ect then, because he really didn#t like talking about work during his free time, especially when he was with ieran. (lthough they always went to bed at the same time, because ieran would in!ariably wait up for him, it was fre/uently /uite late because of .douard#s schedule, so more often than not they "ust went right to sleep. 6ut .douard did not ha!e any meetings scheduled for after dinner that night and he intended to spend a good portion of the e!ening in bed with ieran. 1o when they were through eating, he took the young wi0ard into the bedroom and embraced him. .5citement was already welling up in him. %I shouldn#t let work interfere so much,% he said. $e kissed ieran deeply. %I get irritable when I don#t get to make lo!e with you.% %-ou could ha!e 2raelin block out time in your schedule,% ieran teased. $e nipped .douard on the neck. %3on#t tempt me*% .douard groaned. $e pushed ieran down on the bed. %Put the lights out.% $e didn#t wait for ieran to comply. $e captured the young man#s mouth again, knowing that ieran didn#t need to speak to perform this spell. The lamps dimmed and .douard reached for the belt of his robes. 3esire throbbed in his !eins as he slipped his hands inside. 1ince it was summer, ieran wasn#t wearing much underneath. That suited .douard "ust fine. -o-o-o-oieran was feeling /uite satisfied, but that didn#t mean he wanted to stop. .douard kept kissing him and the passion in those slow, deep kisses was arousing him again. $e was on the !erge of succumbing to .douard#s insistent caresses when something started nagging at his awareness. $e wanted to ignore it, but instinct made him turn his attention to it for "ust a moment. $e sat bolt upright. %1omething#s wrong with Celli*% $e bounced out of bed and snatched his robe up off the floor. $e didn#t wait for .douard. +ow that he was listening to his inner awareness, his sense of Celli had him in a panic. $e dashed out of the bedroom and banged out into the hallway at a run. >ne of .douard#s guards ran after him, calling orders ahead. The second disappeared into their suite behind

him. ieran recogni0ed immediately that there was something wrong with the guards outside Celli#s suite. They stood at stiff attention and he did not ha!e to see their glassy eyes to know that they had been put under a spell. $e slammed them both with a counterspell as he went by and they collapsed. +o one was in Celli#s sitting room, which was not unusual. $e ran into her bedroom and his heart /uailed. Celli was lying in bed on her back with a pillow o!er her face. ieran dashed up to the bed and knocked the pillow away. Celli#s face was pale and her eyes were staring blindly. $e put his hand on her chest. $er heart was still beating, faintly, but she was not breathing. $er life force was erratic, but it was still flowing through her. 3rawing on his healing power in a manner that was becoming instincti!e, ieran leaned o!er her, whispering spells to strengthen her and to restart her breathing. $er chest rose in a gasp as she pulled in a lungful of air and relief flooded him. .douard appeared at his elbow. %1he#s here'*% There was confusion in his !oice. %&hat happened'*% %1omeone smothered her,% ieran answered tersely, %but I got here time. I think she#ll be all right.% $e glanced at .douard. %&hat did you mean by she#s here'% %There#s someone in the nursery locked in the stasis spell and it looks like Celli.% Celli#s maids crowded around him. %.ster went to get 3octor >lgin*% =ean informed him an5iously. %2ood. 1tay with her.% $e ran out of the room and into the nursery with .douard on his heels. >nly one of the three nurses stayed in the nursery o!ernight and the woman in attendance that night was sitting up in bed groggily, shaking her head and rubbing her eyes. 1he looked like she was suffering from the aftereffects of a sleeping spell. 1he should ha!e been the only other person in the room besides the babies. 6ut standing four paces inside the doorway was another woman who looked e5actly like Celli, her face wide-eyed with panic. $er mouth was open and mo!ing, but the stasis spell pre!ented her from crying out. ieran immediately recogni0ed the glamour she was under. %This isn#t Celli,% he said to .douard. $e wa!ed

a hand, breaking the spell hiding the woman#s true appearance. Caren &oolden stood there, her face fro0en with fear. .douard#s face shut down, e!ery trace of emotion disappearing from his countenance. $e stepped to the doorway. %2uards, take this woman to a holding cell. +o one sees her. +o one speaks to her. Is that clear'% %-es, sire.% ;our guards lumbered into the room but stopped "ust inside the doorway, probably suspecting that if they went any further, the spell would ensnare them, too. ieran grasped Caren by the arm, releasing her from the stasis spell, and she immediately cried out. %-our ma"esty, I...% %1ilence*% .douard snapped. $e looked at doesn#t speak,% he growled. ieran. %1he

&ithout a word, ieran wrapped a spell of air around her mouth. 1he would be able to breath, but she would be incapable of uttering a word until he released the spell. $er eyes bulged out as her mouth continued to mo!e, but no words came out. $e dragged her o!er to the guards and sho!ed her into their hands. The four men hustled her away and they were not particularly gentle about it. .douard went to (ntonio#s crib and touched him gently. %1he didn#t get to them'% $is words were half statement, half /uestion. %+o,% ieran said. (ll three babies were sleeping soundly, unaware of the !iolation of their nursery. %Is she the one who smothered Celli'% .douard demanded, his !oice almost toneless. %Probably,% ieran replied. %6ut we can find out for sure from Celli later.% .douard turned to face him. %1he was not acting alone. 1he could not afford to hire a wi0ard with the ability to make such a disguise. +or, I think, would she ha!e the courage to do such a thing by herself. 6ut until we know for certain otherwise, no one speaks of this. I will speak to emian 3obrick in the morning.% ieran bowed. %-es, sire.% The other two nurses appeared in the doorway, but they hesitated to enter upon seeing .douard and ieran there.

.douard gestured toward the woman sitting on the bed. %Please attend to your companion,% he said, %and stay with the children until you recei!e different orders from me, )ord ieran, )ord 7oret0 or <ueen Celli.% %-es, your ma"esty*% .douard walked out as the two women hurried past him. ieran paused before following him. (ll of his spells in the nursery were still in place and undisturbed. The babies were still safely wrapped in the spell that protected them from magic. They were also still cocooned in another spell which he had ne!er told anyone about, not e!en .douard. This spell would protect the babies from physical harm. $e had ne!er spoken of this spell to anyone for one simple reason. If it were e!er triggered, in all likelihood it would instantly cause the death of whoe!er triggered it. illing with magic was a crime and ieran had no intention of sharing that burden with anyone. 6ut he also had no intention of letting anyone hurt these children. 1atisfied, he returned to Celli#s bedroom. 3octor >lgin was talking with .douard when he entered. %$er ma"esty does not appear to ha!e suffered any lasting harm,% she reported. %6ut she will need to rest.% ;rom the bed, Celli cried out weakly. %The babies'*% .douard stepped to her bedside and took her hand %They#re fine, Celli. ieran#s spell protected them.% Celli gasped with relief. $er face was still pale, but her breathing was strong. %I don#t know what happened,% she whispered. %I woke up and couldn#t breath... I struggled...% %It#s all right,% .douard said soothingly. %&e#ll talk about it later. =ust know that e!erything is all right now. 2et some rest. ieran and I will be back first thing tomorrow.% Celli nodded weakly and closed her eyes. .douard leaned o!er and kissed her forehead. Then he turned to ieran. %&e#re waking 7oret0. This was a direct assault on the royal family. 1omeone is losing a head o!er this.% Chapter 1G: Treason Again? emian 3obrick faced .douard, his face completely pale. %-our ma"esty, I swear to you une/ui!ocally that

I knew nothing planning.%

about

what

7iss

&oolden

was

.douard regarded him without e5pression. %&hen did you last speak to her'% %&e dined together three nights ago.% emian clutched the arms of the chair. %&e spoke of inconse/uential things. I could not e!en tell you today what we talked about.% %I see.% .douard studied emian#s face. The man looked de!astated. %-our engagement was arranged for you, as I recall.% %That#s right*% emian nodded /uickly. %)ord 7achura recommended her. $e reminded me that her family was once as prominent as mine and was brought low by the same failing. I thought that might make her a good fit, so I proposed and she accepted.% %(nd the fact that she is penniless meant you did not ha!e to offer anything for her,% .douard concluded drily. emian#s face consideration.% stiffened. %I admit it was a

.douard drummed his fingers on the desk. They were alone in his office for the moment, but ieran was right outside the door. .douard could feel ieran#s anger through the backwash of the spell linking them. $e had not wanted to lea!e .douard alone with emian, but it was not emian that .douard specifically mistrusted. %-ou reali0e, of course, that until this matter with your fiancEe is resol!ed, I cannot e!en consider appointing you to the senior council.% %6ut your ma"esty*% emian e5claimed. %&hate!er 7iss &oolden meant to do, I played no part in it*% %1he#s your fiancEe*% .douard snapped. %(t the !ery least, it shows !ery poor "udgment on your part that you did not spend more time assessing her character. (nd at worst,% he lowered his !oice, %you are to some degree responsible for not recogni0ing the danger she represented.% emian swayed to his feet. %1urely you don#t belie!e that, your ma"esty*% $e took three /uick steps and leaned on the desk. %1urely you understand that ser!ing you is all I care about*% $is !oice rose and a look of stark passion suffused his countenance. %It#s the reason I ha!e stri!en so hard to be worthy to sit

on your council* It#s the most important thing in the world to me*% .douard stood up. The dismay and e5citement on emian#s face was alarming. %Please control yourself, )ord 3obrick,% he said. %This matter is !ery gra!e and /uite beyond such personal considerations.% emian stared at him, his flush deepening. ;or an instant, he rocked back on his heels and then he "umped forward, scrambling across the desk and knocking .douard to the floor. %+o one cares for you as much as I do, 7a"esty*% he cried. %+o one*% $is hands clamped down on .douard#s shoulders, pinning him to the floor. To .douard, as he struggled to push the other man away, it seemed like emian was trying to kiss him. Then the distraught gentleman was snatched away by in!isible hands and flung across the room. $e skidded all the way to the wall and smacked hard against it. %.douard,% ieran said. $e stepped around the desk and held out his hand. %3id he hurt you'% %+o.% .douard accepted the offered hand and let ieran pull him to his feet. %I don#t understand what "ust happened. $e "ust lost control.% $e looked at emian. The man lay in a crumpled heap at the base of the wall and looked unconscious. .douard#s two burly bodyguards were already crouched down beside him. %$e seemed...% $e hesitated. $e wasn#t sure how ieran would react if he said emian had tried to kiss him. %It seems like his loyalty to me is based on more than "ust fealty to the crown.% %$e#s in lo!e with you,% ieran said matter-of-factly. .douard stared. ieran smiled slightly. %+ow I know how )andon felt. I#!e been suspicious of his feelings for awhile now.% $e glared at .douard. %6ut that#s why I didn#t want to lea!e you alone with him.% .douard was dumbfounded. %&hy didn#t you say anything'% ieran patted his cheek. %6ecause you wouldn#t ha!e belie!ed me.% .douard made a face, but he knew ieran was right. $e wouldn#t ha!e belie!ed it. %1o what do I do now'% he asked. $e gestured at the unconscious emian. %$e probably only proposed to that stupid girl because he assumed he needed to be married to make himself look like a successful gentleman. I truly doubt he had any idea what she was planning.%

%Probably not,% with him'%

ieran agreed. %1o what should we do

%Put him under house arrest,% .douard responded immediately, %but we won#t say why. &e#ll tell him it#s for assaulting me. &e#ll let e!eryone else assume it#s because of Caren. 6ecause I#ll tell you something.% $e held ieran#s eyes. %I think Caren was coerced into doing this and I want to lull whoe!er is responsible into belie!ing they#re safe. (s soon as (mrisen gets here, I#ll ha!e 7oret0 conduct the interrogation. I would like you to stay with Celli.% %I#m your bodyguard, .douard,% he said gra!ely. %I should be with you.% .douard smiled. %Tell me honestly you can#t keep me safe from anywhere in this castle.% ieran smiled back. %,ery well. 6ut please keep a full complement of guards with you in my absence.% %I will.% .douard looked at his guards and raised his !oice. %Please summon four guards to escort )ord 3obrick to his suite. $e is to be confined in his room for the time being.% >ne of the guards went out, but he returned almost right away with the re/uested four men. .douard suspected ieran had already sent for additional guards. %(lso, please ha!e 3octor >lgin take a look at him.% %-es, sire.% Two of the guards hauled emian more or less to his feet and dragged him away, with one of the remaining guards leading and the other following. .douard#s personal guards regarded him e5pectantly. $e glanced at ieran briefly before addressing them. %Please stay outside the door for now.% %-es, sire.% The two big men lumbered out, but they left the door open. ieran smiled. %Thank you,% he said. %I#ll be with Celli. 3i!wall "ust told me that (mrisen is on her way.% %,ery good.% .douard put his hands on ieran#s shoulders and kissed his cheek, e!en though the door was still open. %I#ll talk to you soon.% ieran returned his kiss and walked out. .douard sighed and began picking up the papers that emian#s attack had scattered across the floor, but he didn#t plan to work. $e needed to think. $e was missing something. $e sorted through the spilled papers and put them back in order.

7oret0 wrapped on the open door. %7ay I come in, sire'% %-es, of course.% .douard gestured him in. %I suppose you#!e heard.% %(bout emian'% 7oret0 nodded. % ieran told me when we passed in the hall. I was "ust coming to ask if you wanted to attend Caren#s interrogation. (mrisen should be here in an hour.% %I know. 3i!wall spoke to ieran, too. I do want to be there.% .douard folded his arms and frowned thoughtfully. %3o you think that the attack on Celli was solely because she is an (mbrea'% 7oret0 rubbed his chin. %If only she had been attacked, I might ha!e said no, because it might simply ha!e been someone trying to clear a path for herself to the crown. 6ut Caren went into the nursery and we can only assume she intended the babies harm as well. To me, that speaks of more than "ust a search for power.% %That#s what I was thinking,% .douard said. %6ut the planning troubles me. .!eryone knows the babies are guarded by magic and the common perception is that it only lets certain people near them. 1o whoe!er went to the trouble of making that glamour of Celli didn#t know the true nature of the spell, which means it#s no one in the inner circle that ieran marked. 6ut they tried to sub!ert the spell anyway.% 7oret0 shrugged. %It wasn#t much of a risk,% he said. %If it went wrong, Caren would pay the price. If it succeeded, well...% $e shrugged again. %That#s what bothers me,% .douard said darkly. %It was calculated and heartless. It reminds me of Imbario.% %(h.% 7oret0 closed the door. %It is clear that a wi0ard was in!ol!ed in the attack, or at least helped, but do you think it#s someone who was loyal to Imbario' I thought we had rid oursel!es of all of them.% %-ou can ne!er completely destroy a hornets# nest,% .douard replied. Thinking about Imbario upset him, because it brought up memories of his long childhood illness and his father#s untimely death. %6ut I trust that the &i0ards $all dealt with anyone foolish enough to want to a!enge him. The /uestion is whether or not this unknown &i0ard is actually under the "urisdiction of the $all.% $e stared pointedly at 7oret0. %-ou mean a rogue,% 7oret0 responded hea!ily. 7aintaining the reputation of the $all in the face of

untrained rogues was part of his responsibility, in addition to protecting the kingdom from any danger they might cause. %It#s not unprecedented,% .douard shrugged. ( true rogue would actually be better for e!eryone. The $all would not be blamed, as they were for Imbario, and they would be able to deal with the situation with a free hand. %6ut the attack on Celli was !ery bold. &hoe!er was behind this will try again. 1o we need to learn as much as we can from Caren &oolden. I authori0e you to use whate!er means you re/uire during the interrogation to e5tract the information we need. If she is damaged in the process, so be it. $er life is already forfeit for attempting to murder Celli.% 7oret0 bowed his head. %I understand, sire. I will send word as soon as (mrisen arri!es.% %Thank you.% &hen 7oret0 was gone, .douard sat back down at his desk. The idea that a rogue wi0ard was behind all this was tempting, but what did a rogue stand to gain by destroying the royal family and disrupting the succession' +o one was going to let a wi0ard sit on the throne of &hite 1hores at this point. It would lead to ci!il war. 1o it left him with the nagging /uestion: was someone willing to destroy the peace of the kingdom "ust to ad!ance his or her own personal power, e!en if the throne remained out of reach' &hen a guard came to inform him that (mrisen had arri!ed, .douard went immediately to the holding cells. $e tried not to notice that his usual two guards had been supplemented by four more. &hen he arri!ed, 7oret0, (mrisen and Captain 1oleson were waiting outside Caren#s cell. %1he has not said a word since she was brought here, sire,% 1oleson said. %I should hope not,% .douard replied with a humorless smile. % ieran put a silencing spell on her.% %>h.% 1oleson glanced at 7oret0. %7ight that not impede the interrogation'% %I can lift the spell,% 7oret0 said. $e gestured at the door. %)et#s proceed.% 1oleson unlocked the door and the four of them entered the cell, along with two guards, which made the already small room feel e!en smaller. Caren sat on the edge of the narrow cot, her face pale and her eyes wide with fear. 1he opened her mouth, but no sound

emerged. Tears welled up in her eyes and she put a shaking hand o!er her mouth. 7oret0 commandeered the room#s small stool and sat down directly in front of her. %7iss &oolden, this is an official interrogation regarding your actions of last night. )ady (mrisen,% he indicated the elderly woman with a nod, %will be !erifying the truthfulness of your answers. I urge you not to attempt to decei!e us, because we will ha!e the truth from you.% (mrisen sat down ne5t to Caren on the cot and took her hand. 7oret0 leaned forward and touched Caren#s lips. 1he gasped aloud and her eyes flew to .douard#s face. %Please, your ma"esty*% she cried out, %)et me e5plain*% .douard "ust folded his arms and said nothing. %7iss &oolden,% 7oret0 interrupted, %you will answer my /uestions fully and honestly. 3id you smother <ueen Celli'% The tears spilled down Caren#s cheeks. %It wasn#t like that*% %(nswer the /uestion*% 7oret0 snapped. Caren co!ered her face with her free hand. %I didn#t want to, but I was told the glamour wouldn#t work right if I didn#t and I wouldn#t be able to go into the nursery.% %&hat did you intend to do in the nursery'% %The two boys,% she whispered. %I was supposed to take them.% %&hy'% %I don#t know.% Caren shook her head as fresh tears fell. %I was supposed to take them to an inn on ;urthing 1treet.% %$ow much were you offered'% Caren shuddered. %It wasn#t money,% she whispered. %That is not completely true,% (mrisen said /uietly. %It is*% Caren gasped out. %$e said he could pro!e my mother wasn#t a traitor* $e said his ma"esty would ha!e to reimburse me for the loss of my manor once he pro!ed she wasn#t collaborating with )ord Imbario*% %I see.% 7oret0 glanced at (mrisen and she nodded slightly. %&ho was this man'% %I don#t know his name,% Caren said. 1he stared desperately up at .douard and then looked back at

7oret0. %I recei!ed a note directing me to the inn on ;urthing 1treet. It said I would learn something I would want to hear about my mother.% %3id you keep the note'% 7oret0 interrupted. %+o. The note instructed directions and burn it.% me to memori0e the

7oret0 frowned. %I see. Please continue.% Caren sniffed and wiped her nose. %I went to the inn a week ago.% 1he shi!ered. %It was not the sort of place a woman like me should go by herself,% she finished in a whisper. %&ho met you'% %=ust that man. $e wasn#t old, but he wasn#t that young either. $e was well-dressed and spoke like a gentleman.% .douard blinked, but he didn#t speak. The description, !ague as it was, immediately reminded him of the man they belie!ed had been selling the wi0ard-bone powder formulas. 7oret0 sat forward. %&hat arrangements did he make with you'% %$e said I would recei!e written instructions when they needed me. $e told me...% 1he hesitated and her eyes flicked to .douard and away. %$e told me that it was wrong for an (mbrea to sit on the throne of &hite 1hores. $e said that ing .douard was being decei!ed and we needed to open his eyes.% %&hy not the girl'% .douard demanded abruptly. %&hy only the boys'% Caren "umped at the harshness of his tone. %I don#t know*% 7oret0 glanced at .douard and .douard shook his head apologetically. $e had not meant to interrupt in the first place. %7iss &oolden,% 7oret0 continued. %&hen did you recei!e your instructions for last night'% %-esterday, "ust after dinner. ( page handed me a note as I was lea!ing the dining room.% %&ould you remember which page'% 1he shook her head. %I returned to my room to read the message. It said I would find two magic formulas on my dressing table. (n hour after midnight, I was supposed to drink one formula, which would gi!e me the appearance of <ueen Celli for about an hour. The

other formula was shaped into little balls. I was told to throw one at the guards outside her ma"esty#s suite and to enter once they became still. (fter...% 1he swallowed. %(fter smothering the /ueen, I was supposed to throw another of the balls into the nursery and enter when the maid became still. 6ut when I entered...% 1he stopped and began to weep again. %-ou became ensnared in the spell,% 7oret0 finished for her. 1he nodded without speaking. 7oret0 chewed his lip for a moment. %1o you recei!ed no prior compensation for your cooperation'% he finally said. %-ou did all this on the promise of clearing your mother#s name'% %-es,% Caren whispered. %3id he gi!e you any clue about what he knew'% %+o,% Caren shook her head. %6ut he said it was irrefutable.% 7oret0 stood up and drew .douard into the corner. )owering his !oice, he said, %1he hasn#t been paid and her moti!ation, howe!er foolish, is understandable.% %I hear what you#re saying, 7oret0,% .douard replied, %but it was still self-interest on her part. The only person who gains from clearing her mother#s name is her. (nd she#s barely told us anything about the man who hired her.% .douard regarded Caren coldly. $e could not find it in himself to feel any sympathy for her. 1he had been willing to murder Celli to achie!e her goal. There was no e5cuse for that. %1he#s a fool,% he said. %I won#t e5ecute her, but neither will I free her. 1he has confessed in my presence, so there will be no trial. ;ind out what you can about the man she talked to and then transfer her to the prison. I am issuing a life sentence.% 7oret0 bowed his head. %,ery well, sire.% .douard left without looking at Caren again. The situation infuriated him. 1omeone took ad!antage of the girl#s grief and foolishness and led her into committing a terrible crime. 1he had already demonstrated her susceptibility during the incident with the fertility spell. 6ut Caren was an adult. $e was not about to absol!e her of complicity in the crime, especially since she could not directly implicate anyone else. Then something struck him and he went back to the cell. %7oret0*% $e beckoned the 4oyal

&i0ard outside. %1end for =onas. I want him to check her for traces of wi0ard bone powder. If that glamour she used contained wi0ard bone powder, it connects this attempt on Celli and the babies to whoe!er is producing that powder.% %3o you think that person is responsible'% %I don#t know.% .douard scowled. %6ut this all seems too coincidental to me. 3o it as soon as possible. -ou can mo!e her to the prison later.% %-es, sire.% 7oret0 bowed and reentered the cell to speak to 1oleson. .douard decided to go see Celli. $e hadn#t spoken to her since going to his office to inter!iew emian. $e wanted to see for himself that she was all right, e!en though he knew ieran would send for him if she wasn#t. $e wanted to look in on the babies, too. Thinking about his children made him wonder again why Caren had been told to take only the boys. )ida had (mbrea blood, too. 1o what was the difference' .douard was determined to find out. -o-o-o-o+othing hurt, but Celli still didn#t feel right. .!ery time she drew a deep breath, she felt a moment of panic that she might not be able to draw air into her lungs. 6ut it made her angry rather than afraid. 1he wanted to know what was going on, but her impatience was not going to pull answers out of the air. (nd that "ust made her angrier. 1he kept pacing back and forth between the door to the nursery and the outer door to the hall. ieran watched her pace from his seat on the couch, but he didn#t say anything. 1he glared at him. %3id .douard send you here to make sure I stayed in my suite and beha!ed myself'% %+o.% ieran shook his head and smiled. %$e#s worried about you and he wants someone he trusts at your side.% Celli frowned and paused in her pacing. %I think there are not many people in that group.% ieran lifted his eyebrows. %People that .douard trusts'% %-es.% Celli sat down ne5t to him and folded her hands in her lap. %I don#t think .douard trusts !ery many people. I suppose it must be a legacy of Imbario#s betrayal.%

%Probably,% ieran replied. %The 4oyal &i0ard should be the one person the king ought to be able to trust without /uestion. 6ut it#s not that .douard doesn#t trust people. $e relies on people all the time, which is a kind of trust. &hat you#re thinking of are the few people he counts on to put his interests before their own.% $e patted her hands. %$e includes you in that group, you know.% Celli looked down. %I know, but should he'% 1he sighed. %;rom the beginning, I ha!e been stri!ing to bring my family back into society. If that goal e!er became at odds with his needs, what then'% %$e trusts you to discuss it with him and reach a compromise,% ieran replied. %-ou can#t achie!e your goal without his help, so you ha!e no reason to work against him, do you'% %+o.% Celli stuck her lip out. ieran was speaking !ery patiently, gi!ing her time to get o!er her mood. %-ou think I#m being silly.% %I don#t.% ieran s/uee0ed her hands where they rested under his. %I think you#re still upset about last night, and well you should be. -ou were assaulted and your children were threatened. 6ut I#m sure we will hear something soon. In fact,% he paused and his eyes lost focus for a moment. %.douard "ust left the holding cells and I think he#s on his way here.% %>h, good*% Celli e5claimed. %I want to hear what that woman had to say. I cannot stop wondering if she really meant to harm me when she ga!e me that fertility spell. (nd are there others who feel as she does' 3o people really hate me that much'% Celli felt the tears welling up inside her as she spoke. 6eing despised as an (mbrea had been impersonal in a way. 6ut this animosity aimed directly at her felt horribly worse. ieran slipped his arm around her shoulders. %3on#t, Celli,% he said gently. %)et#s hear .douard first.% Celli leaned against his shoulder and struggled to keep from crying. 1he felt foolish letting her emotions swing from anger to despair and back again, but it was hard to fight it, especially when memories of suffocating filled her with sudden panic. &hen .douard entered, she couldn#t stop herself from "umping to her feet and rushing toward him. %&hat happened'%

%1he was hired,% .douard replied. $e took Celli#s hand and led her back to the couch. $e waited for her to reclaim her seat and then sat down beside her. %( man promised her he could clear her mother#s name if she kidnapped the boys.% %=ust the boys'% ieran asked sharply. %-es.% .douard returned ieran#s troubled look. %1he could not gi!e a reason, other than to say that an (mbrea should not sit on the throne of &hite 1hores. 6ut we ha!e had ruling /ueens before so it makes no sense to take only the boys. 6ut she said that she was told she had to kill Celli in order for the glamour to work in the nursery.% $is ga0e shifted to Celli. %Personally, I think she was told that simply to force her to try to kill you, because she probably would not ha!e tried, otherwise. I don#t think she has anything against you. I think the only thing she cares about is clearing her mother#s name and being reinstated in the kingdom.% %1he tried to take my life for such a selfish reason'% Celli e5claimed. 1he clenched her fists, suddenly furious. %1he was willing to destroy this kingdom#s future for something she could ha!e "ust petitioned for'% ;or a moment, Celli felt like she was smothering again. &hite hot anger made it hard to breathe. ieran touched her forehead and a wa!e of calm spread from his fingertips. Celli was still angry, but the choking fury was washed away. 1he drew a shaking breath. %&ill you e5ecute her'% %I sentenced her to life in prison,% .douard answered. (t her startled look, he continued in a thoughtful tone. %There#s more to this than "ust her and someone disgruntled with me for marrying an (mbrea. ieran, what is your opinion of that glamour Caren was wearing'% %It was e5tremely well made.% %Caren said the spell was deli!ered to her in the form of a potion.% %&hat'% ieran sat back, a look of surprise on his face. %( glamour is a spell of air, normally,% he said. %Casting a glamour with a potion would re/uire a completely different kind of magic.% $e paused and his brow wrinkled. %In fact, I can only think of one way to do it, but it wouldn#t be a strong spell, because it would ha!e to act from the inside, through the person#s skin.%

%1o for the spell to appear as solid as it was, the potion would ha!e needed to be e5tremely powerful,% .douard said, his eyes fi5ed on ieran#s face. ieran#s eyes opened wide. %&i0ard-bone powder*% he whispered. %.5actly,% .douard nodded once. %I told 7oret0 to send for =onas so he can check Caren for traces. I#m fairly certain he#ll find them.% $e looked from ieran to Celli. %I think whoe!er used Caren is connected to the person creating the wi0ard-bone powder.% %6ut why would that person want to destroy the royal family'% Celli demanded. %-ou weren#t the one who e5posed the tainted spells, it was ieran. (nd destroying us will not suddenly make it legal to murder wi0ards for their bones.% .douard tapped his lip. %$ere#s something. &hen Caren made the comment about not wanting an (mbrea on the throne, she also said that she was told I was being decei!ed and needed to ha!e my eyes opened. The implication, I think, is that I am being decei!ed by the (mbreas, but what would you ha!e to decei!e me about'% %I ha!e been completely honest with you from the beginning, .douard,% Celli said. 1he met his eyes so he could see she was sincere. %I want to help my family, but I would not risk this kingdom, or you, for that.% %I belie!e you,% .douard replied. $e lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. %6ut that may not be enough. I know your family has stri!en to o!ercome the label of collaborators o!er the centuries, but we may need to unco!er and e5pose the full truth of what happened during that time, e!en if it pro!es your family did support (tarkan. If there are no secrets, there can be no lies.% Celli bit her lip and nodded slowly. 1he was not sure she wanted to know the truth, but perhaps it was time to ha!e it all in the open, because she was sure her family was not the only one who might ha!e collaborated. There was no reason why they should be the only ones to suffer for it. Chapter ?H: Guilt ieran left .douard to ha!e dinner with Celli alone and went to the detention cells. &hen he arri!ed, (mrisen was sitting on a small bench "ust outside the door. $e

did not recall there being a bench in that hallway and he lifted an eyebrow. (mrisen smiled and patted the bench. %Captain 1oleson was kind enough to find this for me,% she said. %(re you going to assist 7oret0 with his interrogation'% %+o.% ieran shook his head. %=ust obser!e. I accept that I am too biased to help.% %-ou are a good man, )ord ieran.% %Thank you.% ieran glanced at the guard standing in front of the door and the man opened it without a word. 7oret0 didn#t look at him when he entered and ieran suspected the older wi0ard knew it was him. Caren &oolden was lying on her back on the cot staring straight up at the ceiling, but ieran doubted that#s what she was actually seeing. $e could feel the tight constraints of the spell holding her. $er hands were folded across her chest, which rose and fell slowly. 7oret0 leaned o!er her, his fingertips resting lightly against the sides of her head. (fter a moment, he straightened up with a sigh. %This isn#t going to work,% he said. %I thought I would try one more time, but I#!e already asked for permission to use a memory probe.% %That will damage "udgmentally. her,% ieran replied non-

%Probably,% 7oret0 agreed with a nod, %but .douard already said I should do whate!er is necessary.% $e turned to ieran. %$ow is her ma"esty'% %1he#s well enough to be angry,% wasn#t permanently harmed.% ieran replied. %1he

%2ood. I#m glad to hear that.% 7oret0 looked down at Caren. %I suppose .douard told you he asked me to send for =onas. $e should be here soon. I sent our fastest sloop.% %-es, .douard told me he suspects this is connected to the wi0ard-bone powder.% 7oret0 put his hands on his hips and scowled. %I think he#s right. Caren might ha!e been desperate to clear her mother#s name, but I don#t belie!e she would ha!e willingly committed murder to pro!e it, especially when that murder is a worse treason than what her mother committed. 1omething else dro!e her to do that9 something she either will not or cannot tell us.% ieran nodded. %I agree.%

The door opened and the guard stuck his head in. %The royal wi0ards you sent for are here, my lord.% %&i0ards'% 7oret0 /uestioned. %I "ust sent for =onas.% $e beckoned and the guard opened the door wider to admit two men. %Tank*% ieran e5claimed. %&hat brings you o!er'% Tank wore an unusually grim e5pression. %&hen =onas told me he was coming o!er to check someone for traces of wi0ard-bone powder, I figured I#d better come along. I ha!e information you and the king will want to hear.% %4eally'% ieran e5changed a look with 7oret0. 7oret0 frowned. %It will ha!e to wait. I need to finish with Caren first. The memories I want to retrie!e from her are already a week old.% $e wa!ed =onas toward the bed. %6ut let#s check for the powder first, if you don#t mind.% %(ll right.% =onas stepped o!er to the bed and put his hand on Caren#s forehead. $e closed his eyes and went still. %>h, my*% he breathed. %1he#s fairly pulsing with it* 1he must ha!e taken a massi!e dose. 7aybe one hundred times more than the amounts we were finding in the remedies being sold in stores.% $e opened his eyes and looked at Tank. %The long term effects won#t be good.% Tank nodded and ieran frowned. There was something the two were not saying. %&hat are you talking about'% he demanded. %It#s what I came o!er to tell you,% Tank said resignedly. %I#!e been studying that powder. I think if it is consumed in large /uantities, it will act like a poison o!er time. It will damage the mind and e!entually kill whoe!er is using it.% %&hat'% ieran stared. %6ut it#s human bone*% %-es, but I#!e figured out that the magical power in a wi0ard#s bones is !ery similar to the power contained in a madrin#s sali!a. It#s common knowledge that normal humans often die after direct contact with a madrin. 6ut you know from personal e5perience that a wi0ard#s power is enhanced by madrin sali!a.% Tank paused and licked his lips. %6ut wi0ard-bone powder is different. It has almost no effect on wi0ards, but on normal humans it will enhance their magical ability.%

7oret0 held up a hand. %&ait. (re you saying consuming this powder can turn a normal person into a wi0ard'% Tank nodded. %-es, but he or she would ha!e to consume large amounts of the powder regularly to achie!e and maintain the effect, and o!er time the poisonous side-effect would start to take a toll. The user would begin to go mad.% %7ad'% 7oret0 stared down at Caren. %I think,% Tank continued slowly, %that it would mainly manifest as irrational beha!ior.% %>r gullibility'% ieran added /uietly. $e, too, was staring at Caren. If someone had been dosing the poor girl with wi0ard-bone powder-laced spells to make her obedient, would that ha!e been enough to make her willing to commit murder as well' %6ut how much powder would someone ha!e to take to become capable of casting spells'% 7oret0 demanded angrily. %I am !ery disturbed by the thought of some untrained, irrational person in possession of a wi0ard#s powers.% %( lot,% Tank replied. 7oret0#s scowl deepened. %3id 2a!ilan gi!e permission to probe her memory'% %-es.% %,ery well.% $e pulled the stool closer to the bed and sat down. %-ou don#t ha!e to stay if you#d rather not see this.% $e picked up one of Caren#s hands. =onas swallowed. %I think I#ll wait outside with (mrisen,% he said and slipped out the door. Tank closed the door behind him and leaned resolutely against the wall beside it. ieran didn#t blame =onas for lea!ing. The spell to probe someone#s memories had been declared a dark spell centuries ago because it tended to damage the mind of the person sub"ected to it. ;orcing the memories to the surface so the wi0ard could see them apparently disrupted the normal pathways in the !ictim#s brain, making them unable to recall certain things and to reli!e the probed memories o!er and o!er. 6ut Caren was already condemned to life in prison. It didn#t matter if she spent those years as a madwoman. &atching 7oret0, ieran felt a twinge of guilt. $e knew how to perform the spell 7oret0 was using. (ll me

students were taught how to cast a number of dark spells in their final year of training "ust so they would not inad!ertently use something similar through ignorance. ;or someone like him, who could in!ent spells on the fly, knowing about dark spells was critical, although the knowledge had not sa!ed him from using the amputation spell he created on Professor (kitaka years ago. 6ut as 7oret0 cast the spell, ieran could not help but feel a little sorry for him. nowing he was permanently in"uring Caren with magic would undoubtedly lea!e a bad taste in his mouth. 7oret0 whispered the spell and Caren stiffened as its threads wo!e into her mind. %4emember the night you went to the inn to meet the man about your mother,% 7oret0 murmured. %Think about the man. 4ecall his face and his mannerisms. $ear his speech in your mind.% Caren#s mouth opened. 1he drew a ragged breath. %I see him,% she whispered. %$e is tall and his hair is dark. 6ut his eyes are light, almost green. I#!e always liked that combination.% %3oes he gesture as he speaks'% 7oret0 asked /uietly. %$e mo!es the fingers on his right hand. (nd he smiles a lot. $e... $e...% $er !oice trailed off and she gasped. %That#s right,% 7oret0 said. %&atch him speak. -es.% $e turned his head to the side, s/uee0ing his eyes shut as he pulled the memories from her through the spell. Caren#s face went pale and she stiffened, her breathing growing more rapid. (nd then she screamed. 7oret0 clamped his free hand down on her forehead, forcing the spell deep into her mind. This was no /uiet in!asion like dream-casting or )ady 3i!wall#s mental messages. This was a messy !iolation of Caren#s mind. $er cries became pitiful, but still 7oret0 persisted. Then, with a harsh sigh, he sat back and released her. Caren went limp. %If I see that man I#ll recogni0e him,% 7oret0 said decisi!ely. $e pushed to his feet and went to the door. %Take her to the prison now,% he told the guards outside. 1tanding beside the door with his arms folded, Tank spoke up. %&e should go see his ma"esty now,% he said. %I want to tell him personally about my findings.% 7oret0 nodded. %I understand. ieran can accompany you. I want to go sketch this man while my memories of him are fresh.%

%,ery well.% Tank looked at ieran. %1hall we go'% $e went out into the hall and ieran followed him. %There#s something else, isn#t there'% him /uietly. ieran asked ieran

%-es,% Tank nodded slowly, but he didn#t look at or saying anything else.

=onas stood up from the bench. %(re you going to see his ma"esty now' I#d like to go with you.% Tank regarded him for a moment before nodding. %-ou should come, too, my lady,% he said, looking at (mrisen. %I ha!en#t discussed my findings with )ord 2a!ilan yet and I think a senior member of the $all should be there when I tell his ma"esty.% (mrisen stood up and smoothed her robes. %,ery well.% The four of them went directly to <ueen Celli#s suite. The hallway containing her suite was now guarded at both ends and guards were spaced the length of the hallway. Celli#s personal guards stood "ust outside the door, but .douard#s were nowhere in sight. ieran immediately touched his link to .douard and found that both guards were inside the suite. $e smiled. $e suspected .douard had told them to stand inside for his sake. (s they approached, one of the guards rapped on the door and opened it. .douard stood up as they walked in. %This can#t be good,% he said grimly. %;our wi0ards at once.% %I am afraid not, your ma"esty,% Tank answered immediately. $e bowed deeply to Celli. %(nd I regret that my first !isit to your home should be under such circumstances, your ma"esty. I am honored to finally meet you. I am Tanaka Trasker.% Celli stood up and offered her hand. %It#s a pleasure to finally meet you, )ord Trasker. I#!e heard so much about you, I feel like we#!e already met.% Tank took her hand and kissed it briefly. %Call me Tank.% %Is the interrogation finished'% .douard asked. %-es,% ieran replied. %7iss &oolden is being transferred to the prison now.% $e met .douard#s eyes. %7oret0 learned what we needed to know. $e knows what the man who hired her looks like.% %2ood.% .douard crossed his arms and looked at Tank. %6ut I don#t think that#s why you#re here.%

Tank nodded. %I#!e learned /uite a lot about wi0ardbone powder o!er the past se!eral months. It#s a mild poison when consumed by normal people in large /uantities. The amount her ma"esty took,% he added /uickly, %would not pose a problem, particularly since she ne!er consumed any more. $owe!er, for people using a lot o!er a long period of time, it will e!entually cause irrational beha!ior and madness.% .douard frowned. %&ould the person making the powder know this'% %I doubt it. The effect is gradual and there are benefits to consuming the raw powder.% Tank drew a breath. %It causes a normal person to de!elop a wi0ard#s powers.% .douard#s arms dropped to his sides. %&hat'% %(s you know,% Tank continued, %it#s not uncommon for otherwise normal people to be able to perform !ery minor spells, like purifying water or making a faint light. If someone with this low le!el of ability ate the raw powder, he or she would become much more capable, on a par with say a second or third year student, but without the benefit of training. 6ut they would ha!e to keep eating the powder to maintain their new abilities.% %6ut the more they eat, the more irrational they become,% .douard concluded. %Precisely.% .douard ran the fingers of both hands through his hair. %( wi0ard who beha!es irrationally,% he muttered. %Isn#t that the !ery definition of a rogue wi0ard'% (mrisen spoke up for the first time. %7adness in a wi0ard is one of our greatest fears, your ma"esty. :nfortunately, if the !ictim cannot be helped and is deemed a danger to others, he or she would ha!e to be bound.% %6ut this person,% .douard said decisi!ely, %is already a murderer. Imprisonment is a gi!en for a normal person, so I think binding would be a gi!en for a wi0ard.% (mrisen inclined her head. %That is so.% .douard looked at =onas. %3id Caren consume the powder'% %-es, your ma"esty,% =onas responded. %It was an e5tremely large amount, too. 7ore, I think, than was

necessary to power the glamour I heard she was wearing.% %6ut did any of you notice magical ability in her'% .douard looked at the others /uestioningly. %If she had no ability to begin with,% Tank answered, %it might not ha!e affected her, e5cept as a poison.% %6ut if the person making it knows it can cause one to de!elop magical abilities, why would she ha!e been gi!en such a large amount' 3oesn#t that run the risk of someone else finding out what it can do'% .douard looked directly at ieran as he asked this /uestion. ieran shrugged. %Possibly, but I think it#s more likely whoe!er is making the herbal spells doesn#t really know how much wi0ard-bone powder to use when augmenting a spell. (nd in the case of the glamour, making sure it was strong enough to last for se!eral hours and hold up to close scrutiny probably outweighed other concerns. 6esides, ha!ing magic potential means nothing without some le!el of study.% .douard scowled. %1o we ha!e a partially trained, possibly irrational wi0ard mi5ing magic formulas without a clear understanding of the one critical ingredient,% he growled. %This is going to get worse. It#s going to escalate in the same way the business with Imbario escalated.% Tank made a face. %It#s interesting that you should make that comparison, ma"esty, because there are similarities.% .douard stared. %&hat do you mean'% Tank glanced at ieran before continuing. %(s part of studying the wi0ard-bone powder, I used madrin bone powder as a comparison. There were differences ob!iously, but the most interesting thing I learned is that madrin bone powder affects wi0ards in more or less the same way that wi0ard-bone powder affects normal people. It enhances their magical ability and, if consumed regularly for a long time, may cause irrational beha!ior.% .douard went pale and swallowed. %(re you saying Imbario was insane'% %Possibly. >r at the !ery least, he may ha!e been beha!ing irrationally.% Tank put a hand on .douard#s shoulder. %-ou were right to make the production of madrin bone powder illegal. It is a dangerous substance for wi0ards.%

.douard stared down at the floor, his ga0e losing focus. ieran mo!ed to his side and took his hand, but he didn#t speak. (fter a moment, .douard looked up. $is e5pression was odd9 half-relief and halfindignation. %I still cannot pardon Imbario for what he did, but it honestly makes me feel better to think he turned on my father because of madness. It always bothered me to think my father was such a poor "udge of character that he did not recogni0e Imbario#s megalomania. 6ut if Imbario#s aspirations resulted from an irrational inflammation of his natural tendency toward narcissism, my father#s decision to choose him as the 4oyal &i0ard was not wrong at the time.% $is fingers tightened on ieran#s hand. %&hat is the $all#s stance on this'% %I ha!en#t yet discussed it with anyone, your ma"esty,% Tank said, %but it is my recommendation that we publici0e the fact that wi0ard-bone powder is poisonous and offer,% he paused and grimaced, %an antidote to anyone who seeks it. >f course, the antidote would ha!e no effect, since no one other than the person behind all this has likely consumed enough for the poisonous effects to kick in.% .douard nodded. %I concur. Please inform )ord 2a!ilan that I support your recommendation. It is probably the best way to protect wi0ard#s li!es and hopefully keep anyone else from finding out about the other side-effect.% %(s you command, ma"esty,% Tank replied with a bow. .douard rubbed but chin. %6efore you lea!e, )ady (mrisen, I would like you to be present for an inter!iew with emian 3obrick. I would like you to attend also, )ord =onas. $e assaulted me this morning, but his beha!ior struck me as irrational, so after our con!ersation "ust now, I am e!en more concerned about his actions.% (mrisen clasped her hands together. %3o you think he might be the one responsible'% .douard#s brow wrinkled thoughtfully. %I hadn#t thought so, but I would not ha!e suspected his father, either.% %,ery well.% (mrisen inclined her head. %&hen would you like to inter!iew him'% %4ight now,% .douard said. $e turned to Celli. %-ou should rest. I#ll ha!e breakfast with you tomorrow and tell you what we learned.%

Celli looked like she wanted to argue, but she bowed her head obediently. %(ll right. 2ood night.% 1he kissed him on the cheek. Then she turned to ieran. %Please come to breakfast, too.% 1he kissed him on the cheek as well. %I will.% Celli went into the nursery instead of her bedroom. (s soon as the door closed behind her, .douard started for the door. %I ha!e always belie!ed the person behind the wi0ard-bone powder was someone of noble blood.% $e made a face. %>nly nobles are greedy enough to rationali0e murdering wi0ards for profit. The fact that the man selling the powder, who might also be the same one who contacted Caren &oolden, appears to be well-bred supports this theory. I#m not con!inced that emian is behind this, but talking to him may be enlightening.% There were guards posted outside emian#s suite. They came to attention as .douard arri!ed with his entourage. %$as he been /uiet'% %-es, sire,% one of the guards responded. %$e#s not made a sound since 3octor >lgin left.% .douard gestured at the door. %&e#re going to interrogate him now.% The guard opened it, but before .douard could go in, one of his bodyguards stepped past him and entered the room first. .douard glanced at ieran and smirked. ieran "ust smiled back. emian#s suite was comfortably si0ed9 a holdo!er from his family#s former position in the kingdom. It boasted a large sitting room with space enough for a dining table, plus two bedrooms. emian was seated on a couch in the middle of the room holding his head in his hands. >nly one lamp was lit abo!e the mantelpiece, so the room was fairly dim. &ithout a word, one of .douard#s bodyguards lit a taper in the lamp and went around lighting the other lamps. (s soon as the group came in, emian pushed hea!ily to his feet. $e faced .douard with a hopeless e5pression. $is eyes were red and his cheeks were puffy, gi!ing the impression he had been crying. .douard stopped a few paces away and crossed his arms. %)ord 3obrick, you assaulted me earlier today. I want to know why. These wi0ards are here to assist me during our discussion. This is not a formal interrogation. Please sit down.% emian swallowed and sank back down on the couch.

.douard nodded at =onas. %-ou first, )ord =onas.% emian watched with apprehension as =onas stepped up to him and placed a hand on his forehead. %There are strong traces of wi0ard-bone powder,% =onas reported, %but not as strong as with 7iss &oolden. Perhaps half as much.% %)ord 3obrick,% .douard said, %are you in the habit of using magic potions or remedies'% emian blinked in surprise. %+o* I ha!e had difficulty sleeping since my father8 died and I will sometimes use a sleeping draught, but it#s not an unusual formula.% %3o you buy it yourself'% %:h, no, my !alet gets it.% %3o you ha!e any right now'% Confusion showed on emian#s face, but he pointed toward the door to one of the bedrooms. %There#s an en!elope on my night table with a few packets left in it.% =onas immediately went into the bedroom and returned with the en!elope. $e was already poking around inside when he walked back in. $e nodded at .douard. %It#s laced,% he said. emian stared at =onas in alarm. %&hat is he saying'% he asked worriedly. $is ga0e "umped back to .douard. Instead of answering, .douard glanced at (mrisen. The elderly wi0ard immediately mo!ed to the couch and sat down ne5t to emian. 1he smiled softly as she gently took his hand. %)ord 3obrick,% .douard said sternly, %why did you assault me'% emian licked his lips and swallowed. $is eyes flicked around the room, coming to rest briefly on ieran before returning to .douard#s face. ieran saw the panic in his eyes. %-our ma"esty,% emian rasped, %e!en before my father#s betrayal, I ha!e longed to ser!e at your side. I looked forward to the day when my father would retire and I would be able to step into his place on the council.% $e paused and licked his lips again, and a slow blush crept up his cheeks. %I#!e ne!er wanted anything else and after my father#s e5ecution, I dedicated myself to winning back your trust. +othing else matters to me.% %$e speaks the truth,% (mrisen said. %$is de!otion is absolute.% 1he looked at .douard. %I do not think he is capable of betraying you.%

%+e!ertheless,% .douard persisted, %that doesn#t answer the /uestion.% $e glared at emian. %&hy did you assault me'% emian#s blush darkened and he looked /uickly at ieran again. %&hen it seemed like8 like I was about to lose e!erything, I8 I could not seem to think straight. I8% emian drew a ragged breath. %(ll I could think was that if I could "ust show you how much I cared, you might8% $e dropped his eyes and trailed off. %$is normal "udgment might be impaired,% Tank interrupted. %It is a symptom.% %+ot "ust that,% =onas said, speaking thoughtfully. $e was stirring the contents of one of the medicinal packets from emian#s en!elope with a fingertip. %This isn#t "ust a sleeping draught. There are traces of a lo!e potion in here and what I think is an aphrodisiac. The doses are too low to cause o!ert effects, but someone taking this would ha!e a lot of trouble controlling their emotions, especially around someone they#re attracted to.% $e glanced from emian to .douard. %It was almost ine!itable that he would react as he did.% ieran watched emian as he listened to the others# e5planations. The confusion and unhappiness on emian#s face made it clear that he did not really understand what they were saying. 6ut ieran sympathi0ed with him. In all likelihood, emian had not e!en recogni0ed his feelings for .douard as lo!e. 6ut someone else had and took ad!antage of it. 6ut the only result of that ad!antage would be to ensure that emian ne!er got appointed to the senior council. (nd there was only one person who might possibly gain from that. ieran reached out and gripped .douard by the shoulder. %Curdan 7achura,% he growled. %7achura is the only one who would care if emian was appointed to the council. $e arranged the engagement between Caren and emian, supposedly because Caren was a friend of his daughter, and now Caren has committed treason against the royal family, further tarnishing emian#s reputation. $e may not be the one responsible, but I think he should be /uestioned.% .douard turned to look at him. ;or a long time, he said nothing9 he "ust studied ieran#s face. ieran knew what he was thinking. 7achura had once tried to kill him and there was no lo!e between him and that gentleman now. In perfect honesty, ieran could not deny that he wanted 7achura to be guilty.

6ut ne!ertheless, he thought his reasoning was sound. (pparently, .douard did too, because he finally nodded. %I concur. &e will inter!iew him tomorrow. 6ut I want 7oret0 to be there as well.% $e turned back to emian. %)ord 3obrick, I ha!e decided that there are mitigating circumstances for your attack on me. I would like you to remain in your room for the time being, but you are not under arrest. Please be patient. .!erything will be e5plained to you in a few days.% emian stood up and bowed. %I am at your ser!ice, your ma"esty.% $e watched them lea!e, relief and hope brightening his face. >utside the door, .douard regarded (mrisen with a rueful smile. %If he#s as loyal as you say, he might be the perfect person to ha!e on my council.% (mrisen returned his smile %It would not be a bad thing.% %Perhaps not.% .douard rubbed his hands together. %6ut now I shall ha!e to think about how I want to approach 7achura, because I "ust thought of something. $e came to see me about being appointed to the council the same day Caren recei!ed the note instructing her to kill Celli and kidnap the babies. 2i!en what we#!e learned, I#m starting to think that it was not a coincidence.% %If he is using the powder to gi!e himself powers,% Tank said, %he has been doing it for years. It may be too late to help him.% %If he is the one,% .douard retorted, %he won#t need any help getting to the e5ecutioner#s block. (nd if he#s not, he !ery likely knows who is behind it all9 in which case, he won#t need any help in prison. )ord =onas, )ady (mrisen, I would like you to stay in the palace tonight. )ord Trasker, you#re also welcome to stay. Tomorrow,% he paused and drew a deep breath, letting it out slowly. %Tomorrow, we#re going to learn the whole truth.%
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;iction K ;antasy K The 'ueen o( White Shores (uthor: 7oms3ark1ecret P7 .douard and ieran ha!e been lo!ers for four years, but now politics and .douard#s obligations threaten

their happiness. &ith young noblewomen !ying to become /ueen and a new problem on 6right Isle, .douard and ieran must struggle to stay together. 4ated: ;iction T - .nglish - ;antasyI4omance Chapters: ?? - &ords: GB,CCG - 4e!iews: 1@? ;a!s: D1 - ;ollows: BG - :pdated: HD-?1-11 Published: HF-1G-1H - 1tatus: Complete - id: ?FAHH?A ( a (bc (bc (bc Chapter ?1: E)hoes o( the !ast &hen .douard informed 7oret0 in the morning that he wanted to interrogate Curdan 7achura, 7oret0 immediately had a suggestion. %3on#t summon 7achura,% he said. %1end for his daughter. 1ay it#s to talk to her about Caren. 7achura is sure to accompany her and he won#t ha!e any reason to think we suspect him. Plus, I ha!e a /uestion I want to ask her.% %That#s an e5cellent idea, 7oret0. &e#ll do it in my courtroom as well so the presence of e5tra guards won#t be unusual.% 1ince this was not a trial, .douard did not ask his 4oyal Prosecutor to be present, but he did summon a scribe to record the proceedings. 1o with himself, fi!e royal wi0ards, the scribe and a do0en guards, the courtroom was well occupied when two muscular guards escorted 7ichia through the doors. (s they e5pected, Curdan 7achura stalked along behind her, a haughty and irritated look on his face. 6ut as soon as he stepped through the door and saw the wi0ards, uncertainty replaced the arrogance in his manner. 6ut before he could retreat, the guards standing on either side of the door closed them and stepped in front of the panels. 7ichia faltered to a halt in the middle of the aisle between the rows of benches. .douard beckoned her forehead, pointing to a chair sitting by itself in front of his bench. %Please sit down, 7iss 7achura. This won#t take long.% $esitantly, 7ichia mo!ed forward and settled stiffly on the !ery edge of the chair seat. %7iss 7achura, the night before last, Caren &oolden assaulted my wife and attempted to enter the royal nursery. (s 7iss &oolden was a friend of yours, I am wondering if you could shed any enlightening information on her actions.% 7ichia went completely pale and shook her head /uickly. %+o, your ma"esty* Caren complained a lot

about how you treated her mother, but it was mostly "ust whining, I thought.% %&ere you aware she was hoping to clear her mother#s name'% (s .douard asked the /uestion, he watched 7achura out of the corner of his eye. The man was standing partway down the aisle with his arms folded, his brow wrinkled in pu00led concentration. %$ow'% 7ichia e5claimed in confusion. %$er mother died trying to hide her connection to Imbario.% .douard almost smiled. %1o you were not aware'% %+o*% 4ight on cue, 7achura interrupted. %-our ma"esty, I don#t see the point of these /uestions. Caren &oolden was an ac/uaintance of my daughter, nothing more.% %I am aware of that, )ord 7achura,% .douard replied. $e nodded at =onas. %If you would please.% =onas stood up from where he was sitting in the front row of benches with the other wi0ards and approached 7ichia. 1he watched him with a frightened e5pression and flinched when he touched his hand to her forehead. %There are traces, sire,% he said, %but it#s not significant.% $e dropped his hand and 7ichia shi!ered. %4eally' I would ha!e e5pected her body to ha!e flushed it by now.% %:nless she still has access to it,% 7oret0 said. $e walked around in front of 7ichia and took a roll of paper from under his robe. %7iss 7achura, do you recogni0e this man'% $e unrolled the paper and held it up in front of her. 7ichia stared at the picture. %I think he#s one of my father#s retainers,% she said slowly. 7achura suddenly stamped forward. %)ook again*% he e5claimed loudly. %That#s no one we know*% %&hat'% 7ichia looked at her father in surprise, but when the angry gentleman stopped beside her, =onas abruptly grasped him by the wrist. %&hat are you doing'% 7achura cried. $e snatched his arm away, but =onas was already turning to .douard. %$e#s saturated with it, your ma"esty,% =onas said calmly. %The o!erall le!el isn#t high, but his flesh is permeated with it, which I did not see with anyone else. I think it indicates regular consumption o!er a prolonged period of time, most likely years.%

ieran was on his feet in an instant. $e gestured and 7achura#s arms were suddenly pinned to his sides. 7achura struggled against the constraint, his eyes bulging with fear and fury. %4elease me*% he cried. %&hat is the meaning of this'% %$ow strong is he'% 7oret0 demanded. =onas touched 7achura#s forehead, his eyes briefly losing focus. %$e#s not !ery strong, but...% $e paused and his eyes s/uee0ed shut. %>h*% $is eyes popped open again. %$e#s a clair!oyant*% he e5claimed in surprise. %( clair!oyant'% 7oret0 echoed. %That#s almost as rare as dream-casting* (nd useful for a nobleman, depending on what he sees. I can see why he would want to enhance this ability.% .douard tapped his finger on the bench. %Curdan 7achura,% he said, assuming a formal tone. %I charge you with the murder of an unknown number of wi0ards and with using magic against Caren &oolden to coerce her into committing crimes in your behalf.% %That#s not possible*% 7ichia cried. 1he "umped to her feet and flung her arms around her father. %4emo!e her,% .douard said calmly, %but keep her in the detention cells for now.% The two guards who had brought 7ichia immediately took her in hand and dragged the struggling, crying young woman from the courtroom. &hen the door was closed again, .douard looked down at 7achura. %)ord 7achura, there is enough e!idence against you to submit you to a soothsaying.% )ady (mrisen stood up. %-our ma"esty, under the circumstances, I submit that a truth-taking is warranted. >n my authority, I gi!e )ord 7oret0 permission to place Curdan 7achura under a compulsion.% .douard sat back in surprise. To the best of his knowledge, the &i0ards $all had not authori0ed a truth-taking in o!er a hundred years. The compulsion spell would force 7achura to speak only the truth, without e/ui!ocation. &hile a soothsaying ultimately had the same effect, it re/uired rigorous /uestioning and did not compel the person being /uestioned to !olunteer information. $e nodded slowly. %,ery well, my lady. I accept your authori0ation. )ord 7oret0, please proceed.%

7achura struggled desperately against the spell holding him. %-ou can#t do this*% he cried. %I#m no wi0ard* The $all has no "urisdiction o!er me*% 6ut his cries and struggles did him no good. 7oret0 stepped in front of him and caught 7achura#s head in his hands. 7achura stiffened as 7oret0 began to intone the spell. %I re"ect*% he screamed abruptly. %-our power can#t touch me*% 7oret0 snatched his hands away with a gasp. %+ot a wi0ard'% ieran snorted. $e stalked in front of 7achura with a harsh smile on his face. %-ou performed that re"ection spell as well as any academy graduate.% $e held out his hand with the palm facing toward 7achura and looked o!er his shoulder at .douard. %1hall I bind him, your ma"esty'% %-es.% .douard watched impassi!ely as ieran worked the spell. $e couldn#t feel the weight of ieran#s power like the others, but when (mrisen sat down abruptly, he reali0ed how much power ieran must be putting out. ieran walked around 7achura slowly, murmuring the words of the spell under his breath. 7achura watched him with growing panic. %&ait*% he cried out abruptly. %-ou don#t ha!e to do that* I#ll tell you e!erything. 1top*% 6ut ieran didn#t stop and 7achura finally uttered a strangled cry. ieran dropped his hand and turned to 7oret0. %-ou may proceed.% 7oret0 had a stunned look on his face, but he returned to his position in front of 7achura and grasped him by the head again. This time, he completed the spell without incident. 7oret0 turned and bowed to .douard. %$e is ready, your ma"esty.% %)ord 7achura, ha!e you been killing wi0ards to make powder from their bones'% 7achura swallowed and struggled against responding, but then his face sagged and he spoke. %-es.% %&hat made you decide to do such a thing'% %It was an accident.% 7achura answered almost tonelessly. %I had a wi0ard named romel who told me that madrin bone powder would make my !isions clearer. That day I encountered )ord ieran and we almost caught one on Inchor#s estate, that fool romel was killed. I was so furious that I threw his body into the rendering pot. 6ut that night I had a !ision.% $e hung his head and sighed. %The !ision told me my future would be assured by the powdered bones of

wi0ards. 1o I crushed his bones into powder and ate it on my food. 7y !isions not only became clearer, I could summon them at will, although I could ne!er direct what they would show me.% $e looked up at .douard, his e5pression desperate. %I wanted to use this new power to help the kingdom* That#s why I wanted a seat on your council* I foresaw that you were going to marry an (mbrea and that nothing good would come of it* I tried to steer you away from that decision, but you ignored me*% .douard frowned. %&hy do you say nothing good would come of it'% %The (mbreas ha!e lied to you, sire*% 7achura e5claimed. %I#!e seen it* &i0ards run in their family* I ha!e foreseen that one of your sons will become a wi0ard* .!erything we fought against will be destroyed*% .douard sat forward sharply, his fists clenched on the bench. %Is that why you tried to kill my wife and kidnap my sons'% 7achura nodded !igorously. %-es* They#!e been hiding the truth, you see* They weren#t collaborators* They were much worse* The rogue wi0ard (tarkan was an (mbrea*% .douard fell back in his seat, momentarily stunned. (tarkan, an (mbrea' 3id Celli know' ;rom the shocked looks on the faces of 7oret0 and (mrisen, they clearly hadn#t known. %$e can#t be lying,% 7oret0 said in a shaking !oice, %and if he is a clair!oyant...% %It is the truth,% .douard finished for him. (nd one of his sons might be a wi0ard. ;or a long time, he stared down at the bench in front of him, his eyes tracing the grain of the wood without really seeing it. $e would not put a wi0ard on the throne of &hite 1hores, which meant he couldn#t name his heir until they knew for certain which one. %7oret0,% he said without looking up, %I am remanding Curdan 7achura into the custody of the &i0ards $all. I don#t care what you do with him.% %-our ma"esty'% %$e is a rogue wi0ard,% .douard said, %e!en if the power he obtained was artificial. That makes him your responsibility.% %I understand.% 7oret0 inclined his head. %1ince he is already bound, we can imprison or e5ecute him.%

%.ither would be satisfactory, along as he ne!er sets foot in &hite 1hores again.% %,ery well. I will escort him to 6right Isle.% 7oret0 hesitated. %6ut there is something else.% $e glanced at ieran before continuing. %7ay I approach'% .douard gestured him forward. 7oret0 mo!ed close to .douard#s bench and leaned toward him, lowering his !oice to a whisper. %I think you should know that the binding spell ieran "ust performed normally re/uires ten wi0ards and a containment circle to complete it, and he did it while holding the stasis spell on 7achura, along with all the spells he#s holding on you, Celli and the babies.% 7oret0 held .douard#s eyes with a worried frown. % ieran hasn#t done anything lately to remind e!eryone how powerful he is, but the fact that he can perform a binding spell on his own will surely upset some people.% .douard sighed. $e did not need more talk of rogue wi0ards right now. %That doesn#t change anything,% he replied softly. %)et#s focus on 7achura and what he "ust re!ealed for now.% %&ill you speak to Celli'% %+ot yet. I#ll speak to her uncle first. If the family has been keeping this a secret, I doubt many of them actually know.% 7oret0 nodded in agreement. %That#s probably true.% $e stepped back and raised his !oice. %&hat of the 7achura estate'% .douard shrugged. In truth, he didn#t really care at this point. %The estate can fall to his wife. &hat she makes of it is her business. (s I ha!e deemed 7achura to be under the "urisdiction of the $all, I will lea!e it to you to decide if you want to fine her for his crimes.% 7oret0 bowed. %(s you command, ma"esty.% $e turned to ieran. %)ord ieran, I will be going to 6right Isle and may be gone until tomorrow. Please assume my duties, along with your responsibility for his ma"esty#s safety.% ieran inclined his head. %-es, my lord.% $e wa!ed a hand at 7achura and the man sagged to the floor, caught by surprise by the release of the stasis spell.

>n his knees, 7achura stared imploringly at .douard. %Please, your ma"esty, do not lea!e me in the hands of wi0ards* I#m not one of them* I am your liegeman*% %-ou used magic, 7achura,% .douard replied coldly. %That is the pur!iew of the &i0ards $all. It is their discretion to choose to ignore people with inconse/uential skills. 6ut you committed murder to enhance your abilities and, e/ually important, you used magic to compel Caren &oolden to attempt to commit murder. -ou ruined that young woman#s life and left us with no choice but to destroy her. There can be no forgi!eness for such acts. 6e thankful that I know your daughter well enough to recogni0e that she had no real part in your schemes. I am done with you.% $e beckoned to the guards. %(ccompany )ord 7oret0 and his charge to the port, please.% $e sat back and watched them lea!e. (mrisen, =onas and Tank left also, walking behind the guards escorting 7oret0 and 7achura. &hen they were gone, .douard stood up. $e did not ha!e to tell the scribe the proceeding was o!er. The man was already blotting his last page. %(re you going to talk to )ord (mbrea now'% asked. ieran

%-es.% .douard stepped down from the bench and started for the door. %(n accusation like that has to be resol!ed immediately. There#s no telling who else 7achura might ha!e told. If this comes out, I want to be able to answer any /uestions without hesitation.% %&ould you like me to be there'% .douard thought about this. $e was not going to di!orce Celli or disown her children if the accusation was true. 6ut the possibility that he had "ust introduced the blood of !ery powerful wi0ards into the royal line was definitely a concern. %)et me talk to him alone first,% he finally said. %If wi0ards do run in the (mbrea family, that issue will ha!e to be addressed because of the potential impact on the succession. 6ut honestly, I don#t think knowing (tarkan was a member of their family will make people hate them any more than they already do, unfortunately.% %1adly, that#s probably true,% say anything to Celli'% ieran agreed. %1hould I

.douard shook his head. %I#ll talk to her after I speak to her uncle.% %(ll right.%

.douard went back to his sitting room before sending for )ord (mbrea. Talking to him there would minimi0e the number of people who knew about the meeting, since the hallway outside his and Celli#s suites was still basically off-limits for the time being. $e sat on the couch to wait and for a moment was reminded of his youth, when he had spent countless hours in the same spot, too ill to go anywhere else. $e rubbed his hand thoughtfully across the aging cloth. %I should replace this,% he murmured. 6ut then, he had also spent many years sitting on this couch with ieran, teaching him to read and studying with him. +ot all his memories of the old couch were bad. $e smiled to himself, but then his smile fell away at a knock on the door. Clo!is (mbrea was ner!ous when =ustus admitted him into the suite. $e bowed stiffly from the waist and remained standing "ust a few paces inside the door. .douard#s bodyguards both followed him into the room, settling into place on either side of the door with blank looks on their faces. =ustus went into the bedroom without being told. %Please sit down, )ord (mbrea. I need to discuss something with you.% .douard indicated the chair sitting to the right of the couch. Clo!is blinked uncertainly and took a seat. %$ow may I be of ser!ice, your ma"esty'% %-ou are aware of the assault on your niece, I belie!e.% %-es, your ma"esty,% Clo!is replied unhappily. %I am sorry that it came to this. I ne!er thought8% .douard wa!ed a hand. %I made the choice to marry someone from your family, )ord (mbrea. $owe!er, this incident has brought to light some information which I would like you to clarify, if you can. I urge you to speak with the utmost candor.% Clo!is shifted uncomfortably and nodded, his hands clutching his knees. %I was "ust told that the rogue wi0ard (tarkan was born an (mbrea. Is that true'% Clo!is# eyes opened wide and his hands slid slackly off his knees. %&ho8% he whispered hoarsely. %&ho told you that'% %1omeone I ha!e e!ery reason to belie!e.% .douard studied Clo!is# face. The man#s reaction had already gi!en him his answer, but he wanted to hear Clo!is say it. %Is it the truth'%

Clo!is# face crumpled and moisture appeared in the corners of his eyes. %It#s true,% he whispered. %(tarkan was an (mbrea.% .douard frowned, e!en though he had been e5pecting that response. It was hard to imagine that such a significant historical fact could ha!e been forgotten. %$ow long has your family known'% %&e#!e always known,% Clo!is said resignedly. %+ot all members of the family are told, but the senior members are aware of it. Celli was not told.% $e stared down at the floor and continued in a hea!y !oice. %>ur ancestors spent decades working to obscure the knowledge. It was they who started the rumor that we were collaborators. .!entually, e!eryone came to belie!e that and forgot the real truth, but the hate they felt toward us remained unabated.% Clo!is paused and drew a deep breath before continuing. %(tarkan came to &hite 1hores as a teenager when the family mo!ed north. $e was already a skilled wi0ard and hoped to train at the school on 6right Isle. 6ut he was re"ected for being too old. The re"ection embittered him. $e began studying on his own and e!entually became powerful enough to o!erthrow ing Chendell. That is how the &i0ard &ars began.% %1o wi0ards do run in your family'% %-es.% Clo!is brushed a shaking hand across his eyes. %6ut centuries ago, in order to disassociate oursel!es from (tarkan, it was decided that there could ne!er be another wi0ard growing up with the name of (mbrea. 1o we de!ised a test that allows us to detect magical ability in a child as young as twel!e months and any child who tests positi!ely is abandoned.% Clo!is stopped speaking and swallowed. $e would not meet .douard#s eyes. ( sudden con!iction made .douard straighten up abruptly. % ieran is one of your abandoned children*% %-es,% Clo!is acknowledged miserably. %&e knew when he was born that he would be !ery powerful. (ll the signs were there. 1o he was tested "ust after he started to walk and confirmed our worst fears.% $e bowed his head and put a hand o!er his face. %&e abandoned him at the edge of )ord Inchor#s estate on a path we knew his ser!ants fre/uented. $e was found the ne5t morning.% $e looked up, his eyes bright with tears. %)ord ieran is my son.%

.douard went utterly still. It made so much sense he was astonished that he had ne!er seen it before. 6ut now that he knew the truth, the resemblance between ieran and the (mbreas was ob!ious. It e5plained why ,incent resembled ieran more than .douard or Celli. It e5plained why e!ery wi0ard who met him compared ieran#s abilities to (tarkan. They shared the same blood. %It#s been so hard,% Clo!is went on, the tears finally spilling down his cheeks. %7y wife ne!er understood why it was necessary. I ga!e her a sleeping draught the night I took our baby away. &hen she woke and found him gone, she railed at me for days. 1he begged and demanded and pleaded for me to tell her where he was. &hen I wouldn#t she refused to ha!e another child. 1he became so despondent that my sister and I decided to send her to li!e in a nunnery near our estate in the south. I ha!e not seen her for twenty years.% .douard listened to his e5planation trying not to "udge. The (mbreas had made many hard decisions o!er the centuries and had suffered tremendously for no reason e5cept that they were prone to producing powerful wi0ards. If people at the time knew (tarkan was their blood kin, the family must ha!e "ust barely escaped terrible retribution. (ccepting the role of collaborators and becoming shunned by society had probably seemed like an acceptable alternati!e. %&hen did you reali0e ieran was the son you had abandoned'% %The first time I saw him.% Clo!is wiped his eyes. %I didn#t dare try to keep track of him, you see, because I could not risk my wife finding out where he was. 6ut it ne!er occurred to me that Inchor would keep him on the estate and ha!e him raised as a ser!ant. 1o I ne!er went back to check after we sent my wife away. I "ust assumed he was lost to me.% %6ut that was how it had to be, wasn#t it'% .douard said. %+o (mbrea could e!er be a wi0ard.% Clo!is nodded and held out his hands imploringly. %I know it sounds terrible, but we had no choice. &hen I reali0ed who ieran was, I also reali0ed I could ne!er say anything without all of our secrets coming out.% $is hands dropped limply to his knees. %6ut it has all come out now, hasn#t it'% $opelessness and despair washed o!er his face. %&e will ne!er escape the prison of hatred now.%

%-es, you will,% .douard said firmly, %because I will ha!e no more of it. ieran has fought the label of rogue from the moment he stepped into the &i0ards $all. I won#t let anyone drape that mantle on him now because he is an (mbrea. It is time to put an end to it. (tarkan was destroyed eight hundred years ago9 Imbario only four years ago. -et I ha!e ne!er blamed )ord Colwyn for his father#s crimes. I am not going to blame your family for (tarkan#s, no matter what they may ha!e done at the time to sa!e themsel!es. It#s o!er. ieran is my lo!er and Celli is my /ueen. The (mbrea family is irre!ocably bound to the royal family. (lthough my children do not carry the name, they carry the blood. It#s time to mo!e on.% Clo!is abruptly slid off the chair onto his knees and grasped .douard by the hands. %6less you, sire* -ou are truly the greatest king this kingdom has e!er had* .!erything our family has is yours*% .douard s/uee0ed Clo!is# hands and smiled. %That isn#t necessary,% he chuckled. %I#m rich enough. I would like you to come with me to gi!e this news to ieran and Celli. I will also need to ask a fa!or of you.% %(nything, sire*% %The person who told me about (tarkan also said that one of my sons is a wi0ard. I will need you to use the test you mentioned when the boys are old enough to identify which one. I cannot name my heir until then.% %I see.% Clo!is got stiffly to his feet and returned to his chair. %There cannot be a wi0ard on the throne.% %That is correct,% .douard acknowledged with a slight nod. Clo!is pursed his lips. %&e can perform the test around one year of age. It#s not terribly accurate before then. &ill there be issues if you don#t name an heir before then'% .douard shook his head. %+ot really. I#ll "ust say I want to wait until we know all three are healthy. 2i!en my prolonged childhood illness, e!eryone will understand why I#m waiting. >r at least they#ll think they do*% $e winked at Clo!is. Clo!is managed a weak smile. %6ut now I must face a son I abandoned and e5plain why.% % ieran will understand,% .douard assured him. %$e is not bitter about how he grew up and, if you think about it, in a sense he was better off. $e did not grow

up in that prison of hate confining the rest of your family.% Clo!is# smile got brighter. %That#s true. It#s no "ustification, really, but perhaps it will help him to forgi!e me.% .douard stood up. % ieran and Celli are waiting in her room.% %+o time like the present, eh'% Clo!is also rose and straightened his shoulders determinedly. %I am proud of him, you know,% he said as they started for the door. %$e turned out to be an ama0ing man.% .douard smiled. %I am undeniably biased, but to me, ieran is the finest man in the kingdom.% Chapter ??: Family ieran felt like he spent a lot of time watching Celli pace lately. The young /ueen was pacing back in forth in front of the couch where he was sitting, her hands clutching her elbows and her face settled into a worried frown. 1he had started pacing almost as soon as ieran arri!ed and told her that .douard wanted ieran to wait for him before talking about the hearing. 6ut Celli apparently couldn#t wait. 1he tugged her long, dark hair o!er her shoulder ner!ously and then sho!ed it back, coming to a halt in front of him. %Can#t you at least tell me if 7achura is the one responsible'% she asked an5iously. %I "ust want to know that much*% %I suppose there#s no reason not to talk about that part,% ieran replied. $e could understand Celli#s an5iety. %7achura is the one who was making the wi0ard bone powder. $e was using it himself.% Celli#s worried e5pression sank into one of anger and unhappiness. %3id you find out why he would do such a thing'% %I think we should wait for .douard before discussing that, but I can tell you that .douard decided to turn 7achura o!er to the &i0ards $all.% %4eally'% Celli blinked in de!eloped wi0ard powers'% %To a small degree, yes.% %&hich would put him under the "urisdiction of the $all as a rogue,% Celli concluded, nodding to herself. surprise. %1o he had

ieran smiled. $e lo!ed how /uick Celli#s mind was. %That#s right. 7oret0 is taking him o!er to 6right Isle right now.% %&hat about his rank and holdings' 3id .douard strip him of that'% %+o,% ieran shook his head. %>nce it began a wi0ard matter, he placed the entire mess in 2a!ilan#s hands.% $e grinned. %$e said 2a!ilan could fine )ady 7achura if he wanted to.% %I hope they do*% Celli said with complete seriousness. %$e profited for years from the deaths of innocent wi0ards. They shouldn#t be allowed to keep all that money.% ( soft wail from one of the babies drifted out of the nursery. Celli turned toward the sound, her face going soft. %I feel like I#!e been failing in my duties as mother and as /ueen lately.% %-ou almost died, Celli,% ieran replied gently. %+o one e5pects you to simply bounce back from that.% %I know.% 1he rubbed her hands up and down her upper arms, hugging herself. %6ut I sometimes wonder if I did the right thing by coming here and con!incing .douard to make me his /ueen. 7aybe it was too soon. 7aybe people aren#t yet ready to let go of their hate for us. 7aybe we should ha!e waited a little longer.% %+o,% ieran said firmly. $e stood up and clasped her by the shoulders. %It#s been eight hundred years. +o matter how great your family#s crimes might ha!e been, you#!e more than repaid this kingdom for it. &hat you alone ha!e done for the poor and indigent in &hite 1hores has been tremendous. )ife here is immeasurably better because of you.% $e cupped her cheek in his hand. %-ou are a /ueen without e/ual, Celli.% 1he looked up at him, her dark eyes growing moist. %Is that really what you think'% she asked in a small !oice. $e nodded. Celli bit her lip and smiled. %Then I will not doubt. I ha!e trusted you from the moment we met, e!en though you are a wi0ard and I was raised to fear you, so I will trust your opinion now. Thank you.% %-ou#re welcome.% The door opened and .douard walked in with Clo!is (mbrea on his heels. The older gentleman had an odd e5pression on his face9 an uncertain mi5ture of hope, sadness and fear.

Celli spun toward them. %&hat happened' won#t tell me anything.%

ieran

ieran couldn#t help smiling at her characteri0ation of their con!ersation. %7any things came out at the hearing, but one thing in particular I think you should know,% .douard began. Clo!is immediately put a hand on his arm. %Please allow me, your ma"esty. This news should rightly come from a member of her maternal family.% .douard nodded in ac/uiescence. Celli looked from one to the other in alarm. %&hat is it' &hat did you learn'% Clo!is rested his hands on her shoulders and looked directly into her eyes. %This secret would ha!e come to you had you remained at home and become your mother#s heir. 6ut once we decided to make a play for the throne, we decided it was best that you not know. 6ut the secret came out at 7achura#s hearing and may soon spread through all of &hite 1hores.% Clo!is paused and drew a deep breath. %The rogue wi0ard (tarkan was born an (mbrea. $e mo!ed north with the family when they relocated centuries ago and turned against 6right Isle when they denied his application to train there. (fter the war, )ida (mbrea chose to hide the true relationship by spreading the rumor that we were collaborators. 1adly, she did her "ob too well and the belief became ingrained in society, fueled by a hate that grew out of the lost memory of who (tarkan was.% $e stared an5iously into Celli#s face. %The burden of this knowledge has been held by only a few of us e!ery generation, but we ne!er forgot it.% %I see,% Celli whispered. %Then we ha!e no chance of escaping the past.% %6ut there is more,% Clo!is continued hea!ily. 3ismay filled Celli#s face, but she waited for him to go on. %(lthough (tarkan ne!er fathered any children, the blood that made him still flows in our !eins. >ur family has always been prone to producing powerful wi0ards.% Celli#s eyes opened wide. %6ut... &e ha!e ne!er sent a single person to the &i0ards $all*% %I know.% Clo!is nodded stiffly and for the first time, his eyes shifted to ieran. %&e ha!e been diligent in ensuring that the wi0ards born into our family do not grow up amongst us. )ida (mbrea feared that if

another powerful wi0ard with the name of (mbrea appeared, the knowledge that (tarkan himself was one of us would ne!er be forgotten. 1o, for centuries, if a wi0ard child was born into the family, he or she was abandoned while still a baby and left with no identity.% Celli didn#t make a sound. 1he stared at Clo!is for barely a heartbeat and then turned to stare at ieran. Clo!is# eyes had ne!er left him. .douard was also staring at him and the look in his eyes stopped ieran#s heart. ;or a moment, he couldn#t e!en breathe. $e pressed a hand against his chest, certain that he would not feel any heartbeat. %,incent looks like me because we#re related,% he whispered. $e returned Clo!is# unhappy, an5ious ga0e. %-ou abandoned me.% ieran heard the confusion in his own !oice. (ll his life, he had belie!ed his parents to be ordinary people o!erwhelmed by the prospect of raising another child. $e had belie!ed he would ne!er find out who they were. Clo!is took a step toward him. %I#m so sorry*% he said. %It#s been done so many times o!er the centuries. .!ery generation* I was crushed when I reali0ed that I would ha!e to sacrifice e!erything to keep our family#s secret. It almost destroyed me the day I left you behind. It did destroy your mother.% ieran felt light-headed. It was hard to comprehend what Clo!is was saying to him. %-ou#re my father'% he asked faintly. %-es.% Clo!is watched him absorb this news without mo!ing any closer. There was a sort of hopeful resignation on his face, as if he was torn between hoping ieran would accept him and fearing that he would not. >ddly, ieran found himself wondering what e!eryone else was thinking. $e could feel .douard#s deep lo!e for him through their bond, but he could not tell if the king was upset or not. It felt as if .douard was withholding "udgment until he saw ieran#s reaction. ieran lowered his eyes, looking inside himself for the anger he thought should be there. 6ut he wasn#t angry. $e did not regret the path his life had taken. In truth, he was in no position to "udge the painful choices Clo!is (mbrea had been forced to make by centuries of deceit. $e raised his head and met his father#s eyes. %I forgi!e you.%

Clo!is gasped with relief and tears sprang into his eyes. $e closed the distance between them and embraced ieran tightly. %I knew who you were the first time I saw you*% he e5claimed. %6ut I did not dare say anything*% ieran returned his embrace. %I understand.% Clo!is held him until Celli and .douard stepped up on either side of them, but he released ieran /uickly when Celli put her hand on his shoulder. %1o it seems I ha!e a cousin, :ncle.% %-es*% Clo!is fumbled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his eyes. %It e5plains so much,% Celli said matter-of-factly. %6ut as /ueen, I hereby forbid the (mbrea family from practicing this custom anymore. -ou will send your magically gifted children to 6right Isle "ust like e!eryone else.% Clo!is /uickly bowed. %It shall be as you command, your ma"esty,% he said gra!ely. Celli clasped ieran by the arm. %Cousin*% $er smile was warm and filled with deep affection. %It makes me happy to know that we are truly related.% ieran smiled back. %It pleases me, too.% %&e do ha!e one other problem,% .douard said. %>nly one'% Celli chuckled. %>ne of our sons is a wi0ard.% Celli blinked at him in surprise. %&hich one'% %&e won#t know until he manifests. 6ut )ord (mbrea says we will be able to test them around one year.% .douard wrinkled his nose. %I won#t be able to name my heir until then.% %-ou aren#t going to tell anyone about this, are you'% Celli demanded immediately. %I don#t want any of my children being treated differently growing up, e!en after we know. It will be bad enough with e!eryone wondering when the (mbreas will produce the ne5t rogue like (tarkan.% %-ou already did,% .douard replied simply. $e nodded at ieran. %-our cousin carries the same blood as (tarkan and e!erybody already knows he is more powerful than (tarkan e!er was. 6ut ieran is not a rogue and I ha!e bound him and the family that produced him to the Crown. &e will make sure that e!ery wi0ard to come out of the (mbrea family is

bound into ser!ice to the Crown from this point on.% $e looked at each of them in turn. %I promised )ord (mbrea that I will bring an end to your isolation and I mean to do it, because I will not allow people to start treating ieran like a rogue again because he finally has reco!ered his surname.% %Thank you, .douard,% Celli said. %6ut I ha!e one /uestion. $ow did you learn all this'% .douard smirked. %Curdan 7achura started killing wi0ards to enhance his powers of clair!oyance. $e ac/uired the knowledge in !isions.% %( clair!oyant'% Celli e5claimed. %(ren#t they !ery rare' 1uch an ability could be useful.% %:seful, yes,% .douard agreed. %6ut not enough to kill for. Curdan 7achura tainted his gift.% %1adly, that#s !ery true,% Celli unfortunate he ne!er saw that.% agreed. %$ow

%6esides,% .douard added with a shrug, % ieran sometimes has !isions in dreams, so I ne!er needed 7achura#s ability on the council, no matter how !aluable he thought it made him.% %6ut 7achura didn#t know that,% ieran said. %,ery few people know about my dreams.% Celli ga!e him a cross look. %-ou ne!er told me*% ieran laughed. $er irritation lightened the mood for some reason. %It#s actually rather ironic, because one of the first things Colwyn e!er did after he decided to bring me back to 6right Isle was to ha!e me in!oke a !ision, but it apparently ne!er struck him as important. $e certainly ne!er mentioned it to 3i!wall. I think he was a little too focused on my reco!ery from a fatal wound.% $e smiled at .douard and it was impossible to keep the lo!e out of his e5pression. %That was the first time I saw .douard and Colwyn said it meant our futures were connected.% .douard smiled back, making no effort to hide his feelings. %)ittle did he know.% Celli rolled her eyes, but she was also smiling. %1o are you going to issue a proclamation about 7achura and the wi0ard-bone powder'% %-es.% .douard nodded. %6ut I think I#ll reorgani0e the truth somewhat to suit my purposes.% %>h'%

%I think,% .douard said, lifting his eyebrows, %that I will gi!e you the credit for unco!ering and e5posing his crimes, e!en though you knew it meant re!ealing your family#s most closely guarded secret for the greater good of the kingdom.% Celli and Clo!is stared. %6ut that#s a lie*% Celli e5claimed. .douard shrugged. %>nly a few of us would know that. I#m hoping that public gratitude for your selfless act will cause people to immediately forgi!e the past, particularly since no one can really blame you for hiding such a relationship.% %.douard is an e5cellent "udge of people,% %$e#s probably right.% %6ut to lie...% Celli ob"ected weakly. .douard patted her cheek. %&e did disco!er it because of you, Celli. I#m only stretching the truth a little bit.% Clo!is began to laugh. %It seems fair*% he said, wa!ing a hand. %>ur isolation began with a lie. &hy shouldn#t it end with one'% Celli sighed with amused resignation and began to laugh, too. %Indeed, why not' 6ut which of us is going to write to 7other about all this, :ncle Clo!is'% %-ou*% Clo!is replied immediately, grinning broadly. %3idn#t you "ust mandate, as /ueen, that our practice of abandoning wi0ard children must end' -ou#ll ha!e to send her the order, so you can tell her the rest at the same time. I should warn you, though,% he leaned toward Celli and winked, %you should plan on recei!ing a !isit from her within the week.% %(nd what about you'% Celli lifted her chin. %&ere you planning to keep secret the fact that you ha!e found your long lost son'% Clo!is# smile widened and he shook his head. %(bsolutely not* I may trumpet the news from the rooftop.% Then he turned to ieran and his smile faltered. %(lthough I defer to ieran in this, if he would rather no one knew his heritage.% %I grew up without parents,% ieran answered slowly. %It may take me awhile to get used to the idea of ha!ing them. >r ha!ing a second name,% he added with a small laugh. %1ome of the other students at the academy used to tease me because I only had one name, but once we got our robes, it ceased to be an issue. ( lot of royal wi0ards stop using their second ieran said.

name because their oaths to $all and Crown outweigh their allegiance to their families. >r their families aren#t particularly happy about ha!ing a child become a wi0ard. 6ut I#!e been "ust ieran for so long, I don#t know if I would e!er use my family name.% %&hether you use the name or not doesn#t change who you are,% Celli said. 1he looped an arm through his and leaned against his shoulder. %(nd "ust because you#re my cousin now doesn#t mean you get to stop being a second father to my children. -ou and .douard and I are still a family.% .douard captured his other arm. %That#s absolutely right, ieran. +othing else has changed.% ieran shi!ered, e!en though he was bathed in the warmth of their affection. $e touched his forehead against .douard#s and closed his eyes. %I am so fortunate,% he whispered. %1ometimes I could almost burst for "oy.% .douard touched his lips against his ear. %That#s how I feel e!ery time I hold you in my arms.% -o-o-o-o-o3i!wall sat in 2a!ilan#s office rubbing her knees. It was still /uite warm outside, but she could tell fall was on its way from the aching in her "oints. %1o what are we going to do with him'% 1he, 7oret0 and 2a!ilan had "ust returned from the dungeon, where Curdan 7achura now languished in one of the cells. The nobleman had protested so much at being left in the hands of wi0ards that 7oret0 had put a silencing spell on him during the trip o!er from &hite 1hores. $e had lifted it only after the man was locked away and the echo of his cries had followed them all the way up the stairs to the main floor. %&e#ll e5ecute him,% 2a!ilan stated flatly. %(s a murderer, he certainly deser!es that,% 3i!wall replied, %but there is bound to be an outcry from the nobility if we do it, rather than .douard.% %There is "ustification,% 7oret0 said. %The crimes were committed against us. (llowing us to e5act retribution will seem fair on consideration.% %1o why not "ust imprison him'% 3i!wall /uestioned, continuing to play de!il#s ad!ocate. %$e#s been bound. 6etween that and the effects of the wi0ard bone powder that Tank disco!ered, he probably would not last more than a few years anyway.%

%That#s e5actly why,% 2a!ilan said. %The binding. I would rather it not become common knowledge that ieran can bind another wi0ard by himself. If we e5ecute him /uickly, the sub"ect may ne!er come up.% 3i!wall leaned forward and pointed a finger at 2a!ilan. %$ere is where I disagree with you. I cannot think of anything more useful than a wi0ard who can bind others unassisted. It is unlikely we will e!er again see a wi0ard as capable as ieran, so why not use him' $e ne!er acts unilaterally and .douard has no reason to order him to go around binding wi0ards. 6ut the knowledge that he can might keep potential rogues in line, wouldn#t you think'% 7oret0 nodded, a wry smile on his face. %-ou make a good point, my lady. I think I would ha!e to agree with you.% $e faced 2a!ilan. %I see no reason to keep the fact that 7achura is bound a secret, but I also agree that he should be e5ecuted. $e showed no remorse at all for the killings. $e claimed he was doing it for the good of the kingdom,% 7oret0 added with a snort. %It was clear he thought the li!es of those wi0ards he killed were of less !alue than whate!er percei!ed good he thought would come out of it.% %,ery well,% 2a!ilan said. %I will order his e5ecution for the day after tomorrow. &ill that gi!e you enough time to e5tract whate!er else you want to know from him'% %-es, I think so,% 7oret0 answered. %I mainly hope to learn whate!er I can about his co-conspirators. I already sent 4oyal 2uards to his estate to secure it for searching. &e should send =onas there with a team of wi0ards as soon as possible to turn the place upside down.% %I#ll gi!e =onas orders for that right away.% %(nd we should fine )ady 7achura,% 7oret0 added. %.douard suggested it and I think he#s right. $er husband#s crimes will /uickly be forgotten if she doesn#t suffer for it.% 2a!ilan#s brow wrinkled. %I#!e ne!er issued a fine before. $ow does .douard decide what to collect'% 7oret0 grinned. %$e has them audited and sets the fine as a percentage. The worse the crime, the bigger the percentage. In this case, I think fifty percent is not too much. (sk .douard for help with the audit. I#m sure he#ll be glad to do it.%

%I#ll do that.% 2a!ilan made notes in his "udicial ledger and then closed it with a sigh. %This has been a dark period for the &i0ards $all. I#m relie!ed that it#s finally o!er.% %1o am I,% 7oret0 agreed. 3i!wall gripped her cane and pushed hea!ily to her feet. %Is it o!er'% she asked. 1he lifted her eyebrows at 7oret0. %-ou said 7achura claimed one of .douard#s sons is a wi0ard. ( wi0ard prince is not going to go o!er well. In ten years, we may find oursel!es faced with all new problems.% 2a!ilan frowned. %That#s true. &hat do you think .douard will do'% %+othing, for now,% 7oret0 said, %and neither should we. &e#ll address the issue when and if one of the boys manifests. :ntil then, let#s treat them all as normal children. 6ecause,% he continued after a pause, %although 7achura#s gift makes it possible he saw the true future, he is also suffering from the early stages of madness and he hates the (mbreas. 1o I say we gi!e the boys the benefit of the doubt and wait.% %I won#t argue with the recommendation of the 4oyal &i0ard,% 3i!wall said, %but we should not forget about the possibility. &e cannot allow the separation between the Crown and the $all to become blurred. &e#!e already fought one war o!er that.% %I will keep an eye on the boys,% 7oret0 said. %2ood.% 3i!wall started for the door, her cane tapping loudly on the floor at each step. %+ow it#s time for me to take something for my knees. Tank has a nastysmelling concoction that does wonders.% >utside the door, (mrisen was waiting. %&hat#s the !erdict'% %.5ecution.% %I#m glad,% (mrisen replied, but her !oice was sad. %That man ne!er e/uated his !isions to wi0ard powers, e!en though the bones of wi0ards enhanced his ability. I don#t belie!e he e!er thought what he was doing was wrong. &i0ards aren#t people to him.% %1adly, many people feel that way,% 3i!wall responded. %6ut maybe that will change. <ueen Celli wept for our dead. Perhaps her compassion will spread.% %Perhaps.%

The two elderly women walked down the hall in silence, accepting the greetings of passing students, ser!ants and guards with small nods. >utside the door to Tank#s lab, 3i!wall rested her hand on (mrisen#s arm. %Perhaps it#s time for us to finally retire,% she said. %I#m really starting to feel my age.% (mrisen#s sad e5pression lifted into an amused smile. %I#ll retire "ust as soon as you do, my lady.% %-ou doubt me*% 3i!wall chuckled. Instead of answering, (mrisen knocked on the lab door. %Come in*% Tank called from inside. (mrisen pushed the door open. %I#ll see you at dinner, 3i!wall.% -o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o.douard found ieran in the nursery, leaning on the edge of )ida#s crib. The little girl was sound asleep on her back, her little arms flung out to either side. ,incent was lying on his back in his crib, /uietly sucking on one of his toes. (ntonio was asleep on his tummy, with his knees pulled up underneath him so his bottom stuck up in the air. .douard knew ieran was aware of him, but the young wi0ard didn#t look up from his contemplation of the baby girl when .douard stopped in the doorway. %$ow are they'% %In good health,% ieran replied softly. $e brushed )ida#s hair away from her face. %1he looks so much like Celli. 1he#ll need a haircut soon.% .douard walked to (ntonio#s crib. %They all will.% )ida and ,incent had dark hair like Celli, but (ntonio#s had already lightened /uite a bit, closer to .douard#s shade. ,incent made a cooing sound, so .douard went to his crib. The baby stared up at him, his little face working through a !ariety of e5pressions. .douard picked him up and ,incent grasped his nose. %1illy child*% .douard purred. $e shifted ,incent down so the baby could only reach his chin. %3o you think it was wise to let Celli go to the e5ecution'% ieran asked. $e stroked the side of )ida#s face one last time before turning to look at .douard. %It#s not easy watching someone die.% %1he wanted to go,% .douard said. %>f all of us, she suffered the most because of 7achura. (nd someone from the royal family should be there. (nyway, I

thought it was !ery respectful of 2a!ilan to come get her himself.% ieran nodded. %1he#ll be safe enough, I suppose, on an island full of wi0ards.% %I should hope so*% .douard chuckled. %6esides, 7oret0 is there and he will be accompanying her home.% ieran nodded again. $e came closer and held out a finger for ,incent to grasp. The baby clasped the proffered digit in his tiny hand and promptly sho!ed it in his mouth. ieran smiled as the baby diligently gummed his finger. .douard watched his face, capti!ated as always by the warmth on ieran#s countenance whene!er he was with the children. It was ob!ious he lo!ed the babies "ust as much as .douard did. %3id you speak to emian'% ieran asked. %-es. I told him he could ha!e a seat on the council if he agreed to marry whate!er woman I proposed for him.% %3id he accept'% %>f course.% .douard smiled at the memory. %$e nearly wept with "oy. $e must ha!e thanked me fifteen times for gi!ing him the chance to redeem himself in my eyes. I don#t think the lo!e potion he was gi!en has completely worn off yet.% ieran grinned. %It will probably take a while.% $e looked into .douard#s eyes. %6ut I can#t blame him. 1er!ing you is the one thing I could ne!er willingly gi!e up.% $is !oice grew softer as he spoke and his lo!e glowed in his eyes. .douard returned his ga0e without speaking. The lo!e he felt for ieran suddenly filled him to the point of o!erflowing and the only thing he could do was kiss him in response. 1o he leaned forward and pressed his lips to ieran#s. $e lingered in the kiss until ,incent s/uealed and grabbed then both by the chin. $e pulled back with a laugh. %&hat' 3o you want a kiss, too'% $e kissed ,incent soundly on the cheek. ,incent s/uealed again. The sound made both )ida and (ntonio stir. >ne of the nurses stuck her head in. %Is e!erything all right, sire'% %&e#re fine,% .douard answered, %but it might be getting close to lunchtime for this lot.%

The nurse came in and picked up )ida, who was now wa!ing her arms and legs, her little face scrunched up in the beginnings of a hungry frown. %(re you ready to eat, precious girl'% she cooed. The other two nurses came in and .douard reluctantly handed ,incent o!er. $e and ieran left the nursery so the nurses could feed the babies. 6ack in the sitting room, .douard sighed. %I wish my father could ha!e seen them,% he said. Talking about his father still saddened him, but it no longer hurt the way it once did. %$e was so afraid our line would end with him. I think that upset him as much as the thought that he would lose me. 6ut it all turned out so differently.% $e caught ieran by the hand. %(nd it#s all because you came into my life.% ieran studied him for a moment and then pulled .douard close, slipping his arms around his waist. %3o you know what my happiest memory is'% %+o.% .douard put his arms around ieran#s neck. %It is the night you first told me you lo!ed me.% $e kissed .douard deeply and .douard was immediately suffused with desire. $e returned the kiss passionately. &hen he finally pulled his lips away, he could feel the heat flushing his cheeks. %That night is also my happiest memory because it was the first time we made lo!e.% $e stroked his fingers into ieran#s hair. %6ut e!en after all this time, e!ery night with you still feels special.% ieran#s eyes burned with passion. %If you keep talking like that, I#m going to ha!e to take you to bed.% %Perhaps I should mention that I#m free until dinner.% ieran smiled. sometimes.% %>nly with you.% ieran kissed his cheek. %)et#s go to our room.% &ith his arm still around .douard#s waist, he escorted .douard out of Celli#s suite and down the hall to their own rooms. >nce they were alone in the bedroom. ieran embraced him again. %+ow, then, you were saying that making lo!e with me always feels special.% %:m hm.% .douard nu00led his ear. %)et me show you.% $e had undressed ieran more times than he could remember, but he still lo!ed doing it. 1tripping %-ou can be !ery shameless

the young wi0ard and taking him to bed was always the best part of his day. 3oing it in the middle of the afternoon was tantali0ing erotic. )ooking down into ieran#s face as they lay in bed together, .douard once again couldn#t belie!e how lucky he was. %.!ery "oy I ha!e known in life is because of you, ieran,% he said. %6ut this is the greatest "oy of all.% -o- The .nd -o"nce a#ain$ it feels li!e the end came so %uic!ly$ but this installment has been the lon#est one yet. I&ve really en'oyed writin# this and I hope you en'oyed readin# it. (est assured that the story of )douard and *ieran is not over+ ,he ne-t story$ The Wizard Prince$ will focus more on the children. I will mention it my profile when I start writin# it. ,han! you for readin#+
Chapter 1: Forbidden !owers It was a dream. ,incent could always tell when he was dreaming because the sunlight was too bright. $is dreams were always washed nearly white by the light. 6ut the water of &hite )ake was still deep blue, lapping against the sides of his small boat. ,incent lo!ed to sail, so that part of the dream was normal. 6ut the complete lack of other boats on the lake was not. In fact, he could see nothing but water in e!ery direction. $is heart thumped loudly in his chest. &ith the sky washed white and no landmarks, he had no idea which way led back to &hite 1hores. ;ear rose inside him. ,incent was unaccustomed to being completely alone. 6orn third in a set of triplets, he had grown up with the constant companionship of his brother and sister. >nly recently, since they had turned twel!e, had he started !enturing out on his own, mainly to go sailing. 6ut he ne!er sailed out of sight of land. 6ut now he was completely alone9 cut off from e!eryone by the endless e5panse of &hite )ake. $is fear turned to panic and the brilliant sunlight started to fade, growing steadily grayer until he was in utter darkness. %,incent* &ake up*% That urgent whisper was not part of the dream and it "olted ,incent out of his night terror. $e sat up sharply, clutching his blanket to his chest. $is dark hair was plastered to his face by perspiration. $e could feel the droplets running down his face and chest. $is brother (ntonio, whom e!eryone tended to call (ntony, was sitting on the edge of his bed. $e clasped ,incent#s hands. %(re you all right' -ou cried out in your sleep.% (ntony hesitated. %(nd your hands were glowing.%

,incent stared down at his hands in horrified panic, but they looked normal. %It stopped when you woke up,% (ntony said. %&hat were you dreaming about'% %I was in a boat on the lake,% ,incent whispered, %but I couldn#t see the shore or any other boats. I was all alone.% $e heard the fear in his !oice when he spoke those last words. %&hat do you think it meant'% ,incent was afraid to ask the /uestion, but he asked anyway. Their stepfather, ieran, had prophetic dreams and ,incent took after him in many ways. $e fre/uently had dreams that were either clair!oyant or prophetic, but only (ntony and their sister )ida knew that. (ntony tapped the tip of one finger against his lips. It was a habit that cropped up whene!er he was deep in thought. %I#m not sure.% ,incent looked down at his hands, turning the palms up. %3o you think it has something to do with8% he paused and swallowed, %with my power'% %Probably.% (ntony clasped his shoulder. %6ut that#s still our secret. +o one needs to know.% %I can#t be a wi0ard, (ntony*% ,incent whispered miserably. %If anyone finds out8% %+o one will find out,% (ntony said firmly. %)ida and I agreed that we won#t tell anyone. 3on#t worry. +o one is going to separate us. &e were born together and we will always be together. I promise.% $e hugged ,incent tightly and ,incent hugged back, comforted by the familiar warmth of his brother#s body. $e was glad the two of them were still sharing a room. )ida had been mo!ed to her own room a few months ago when she started bleeding and was declared too old to be sharing with her brothers. They had all wept themsel!es to sleep for days afterward, but )ida had always been the strongest of them. ,incent suspected he would still be crying himself to sleep if he had been the one forced to mo!e out. %2o back to sleep,% (ntony said, smoothing ,incent#s hair away from his face. %I#ll sit with you until you#re asleep.% %Thank you.% ,incent lay back down, curled up on his side, and pulled the blanket back up o!er his shoulder. $e didn#t want to go to sleep, but he was tired. 4esisting the seducti!e pull of the power flowing beneath his skin took effort and he was always worn out. 6ut he had to hold it in, because if anyone e!er saw his hands glowing, it would be all o!er. $e couldn#t be both a wi0ard and a prince. The kingdom wouldn#t allow it. -o-o-o-o-o-o%Pay attention, ,incent*%

The sharp rap of the wooden pointer on the desk in front of him made ,incent "ump and his head snapped around. Their tutor, )ord $irima, stood directly in front of ,incent#s desk, his face pulled down in an angry scowl. ,incent had been caught day-dreaming again, staring out the window at the fluffy white clouds drifting by. ,incent could make the clouds mo!e if he wanted. $e had not told (ntony or )ida that, but he suspected they knew. They always seemed to know e!erything about him. $e dropped his eyes, his cheeks flushing with embarrassment. %I#m sorry, )ord $irima,% he muttered. %(nd well you should be,% $irima snapped. $irima was a compactly built man. $ad ,incent been standing, e!en at twel!e he would ha!e almost topped $irima in height. 6ut $irima#s short stature completely belied the ferocity of his temper when he thought his royal students were not performing at the le!el they should be. >f the three of them, ,incent was the poorest student. It was not that he was less intelligent than his brother and sister, although ,incent doubted he would e!er match the /uickness of )ida#s wit, but the constant state of e5haustion that had become a part of his life left him with little energy or enthusiasm for study. $e was managing to keep up with the others, "ust barely, but the disparity was becoming greater as he got older and the surge of magical power within him became stronger. $irima rapped his pointer against the palm of his other hand. %-ou are disappointing me, Prince ,incent. -ou are no less skilled than your siblings, so I e5pect you to apply yourself with e/ual !igor.% $e glared at ,incent from beneath bushy white brows that reminded ,incent of the clouds that had drawn his attention. $irima#s piercing blue eyes only made it worse by reminding ,incent of the sky. %I#m sorry, sir,% he said. %I#ll do better.% %1ee that you do.% $irima went back to the front of the classroom and resumed his lesson. ,incent forced himself to pay attention. 1chool was the only chore the royal children were obligated to perform. 1i5 days a week, they spent four hours each morning and two hours each afternoon in lessons with )ord $irima. (fter that, (ntony and ,incent spent two more hours studying swordsmanship and )ida was relegated to the parlor where she learned the maidenly arts of embroidery and music. The three of them would then spend whate!er free time they had left riding, sailing or ha!ing archery lessons. The se!enth day was a free day on which they could do whate!er they wanted. In general, they had a lot of freedom, so ,incent felt guilty when $irima had to reprimand him. $e really did need to do better. &hen $irima dismissed them for the day, ,incent remained at his desk with his head in his hands. (s soon

as their tutor was gone, (ntony and )ida crowded close to him. %-ou look tired, ,incent,% )ida said worriedly. %3id you ha!e another nightmare last night'% %-es.% ,incent nodded wearily. %It#s e5hausting.% $e looked toward the door. $irima had left it open, but no one was in sight. &ith a sense almost of relief, he let go and allowed the light to stream through his skin and pour off his hands. 7ostly translucent, the li/uid light was shot through with streaks of angry red. )ida trailed a finger through the light. They had learned early on that his light produced no heat. %The red isn#t good,% she said. %It only turns red when you#re sick or upset.% %I know.% ,incent stared unhappily at the shimmering pool that was forming around their feet. %It#s "ust so hard keeping it in all the time. I#m afraid I#m going to slip up and then what will happen'% $e looked up at the others, feeling the tears forming in his eyes. %They#ll send me away. ;ather will disown me*% %$e won#t disown you*% (ntony replied fiercely. %-ou#re our brother and nothing will change that.% $e clasped ,incent#s left hand and )ida clasped his right, nodding !ehement agreement with her brother#s statement. ,incent clung to them. $olding onto his siblings was the only thing that could soothe the aching fear in his chest. 6eing thrust out of the family, being alone, was the one thing he truly feared. $e wasn#t afraid of magic or of being a wi0ard. $e was afraid of what it would mean to admit that he was one. &ith an effort, he pulled the magic back into himself and banished the pool of light. )ida leaned o!er and kissed his cheek. %I wish I could go with you to sword practice. I hate embroidery* I always prick my fingers.% ,incent and (ntony laughed. )ida#s constant complaints about the feminine pursuits she had to do, and from which her brothers were spared, was a pri!ate "oke. %3on#t laugh* I#d like to see you do it without sticking yoursel!es with the needle*% (ntony held up his hands, still laughing. %+o thanks* I#d rather get my knuckles bruised with a practice sword.% %7e, too*% ,incent stood up and put his te5tbooks away. %&e#d better get going. 7aster )eron doesn#t like to be kept waiting and we will for sure get our knuckles rapped if we#re late.% )ida made a face. %1o that means more pricked fingers for me. 1hould we go riding afterward'% %-es*% (ntony agreed instantly. %&e can ask with us.% ieran to go

%(ll right. I#ll go ask him instead of going to my embroidery lesson with )ady 7emsy,% )ida said wickedly and scurried out. %+aughty*% (ntony shouted after her. They left the classroom at a more leisurely pace and went down to the courtyard. (round the palace to the right from the courtyard, beyond the stables and carriage houses, was the practice area where the palace guards trained. (n open field filled with sand and gra!el, the practice yard usually had a few handfuls of men in it practicing their weaponry. This was where (ntony and ,incent met with )eron, a skilled master of the sword who, in their opinion, had no sense of humor at all. $e was already in the yard going through a series of strikes and lunges, his sword a nearly in!isible blur. $e flowed to a stop when they appeared. %2ood afternoon, your highnesses. 2et your !ests and practice swords. )et#s not waste time.% &asting time was the one thing )eron wouldn#t tolerate. $e would admonish them for missing a strike or a block, but he would launch into a furious ten minute lecture if they were late or he decided they were playing rather than training. The pair of them hurried to the sheds erected along one side of the yard and retrie!ed padded leather !ests and wooden practice swords. $urrying back to )eron, they helped each other buckle the !ests in place and then stood at attention. )eron inspected them briefly before raising his own sword. %Today, we will practice a!oiding, rather than blocking, a direct thrust to the belly. 1wift feet can sa!e your life as readily as a swift sword. >bser!e. Prince (ntony, thrust toward my belly.% (nd so the practice began. It was a long two hours and they were drenched in perspiration when it was o!er. (lthough it was past midsummer, it was not yet fall and the days were still hot. .!en with the sun sinking toward the hori0on, the e!ening bree0e had not yet begun to flow in off the lake. That was the only thing that made the nights bearable during the summer. The onshore flows from the lake cooled the sweltering daytime temperatures. Putting their swords and !ests away, the boys dipped their heads in one of the horse troughs to cool off. Their mother, <ueen Celli, always told them not to because it was undignified, but all the guards did it after training. It was the best way to cool off /uickly. +e!ertheless, they hurried back to their rooms to bathe properly and get dressed for dinner. ( hard afternoon of training always left them ra!enous. )ida came in while they were still in their bath. %-ou better hurry. I heard they#re ser!ing grilled tomatoes with dinner tonight. ;ather and ieran will eat them all.%

%I thought you weren#t supposed to watch us bathe*% (ntony teased. )ida wrinkled her nose. %(s if there was something I ha!en#t seen before*% she snorted. 1he leaned against the wall by the door. %(nyway, ieran says we can go riding after dinner. ;ather has an e!ening meeting tonight and 7other was planning to attend as well. 1ince )ord 7oret0 will be there, ieran says he doesn#t need to be.% Their stepfather, ieran, was the family#s bodyguard. $is primary duty was to guard ing .douard, their father, but he considered <ueen Celli and the royal children to be his responsibility as well. $owe!er, gi!en that he was the most powerful wi0ard in the kingdom, he didn#t need to be near his charges to guard them. The three of them had been protected by magic since birth. (ntony and )ida were not aware of the spells, but ,incent could feel them. (t first, he had not understood what that featherlike sensation tickling at his awareness was, but now that his power had started to blossom, he understood that what he was feeling was the presence of magic resting on his skin. The spells were like gossamer, but ,incent sensed the incredible strength in them. (lthough he felt an instincti!e desire to break free of those silken threads, he knew he did not ha!e the strength. ieran#s power was beyond anything ,incent would e!er be able to achie!e. %<uit dawdling, ,incent*% )ida demanded, breaking him out of his re!erie. %I#m hungry*% %1orry*% ,incent /uickly finished rinsing his hair and clambered out of his tub. ( waiting ser!ant draped a towel around him, casting a faintly admonishing glance toward )ida, who stood there calmly watching her naked brothers being toweled dry. ,incent couldn#t help chuckling to himself. 6arely fi!e months before, the three of them had bathed together in the same room and no one had thought anything of it. 6ut once he and (ntony were dressed and more or less presentable, the triplets dashed out of the room and ran to the dining room they shared with their parents, tumbling through the door like wild dogs, all legs and appetite. %Children*% Celli e5claimed. %&here are your manners'% The three skidded sheepishly to a halt. %1orry, 7other*% they e5claimed in chorus. %&e#re hungry*% )ida added. %The boys I can understand,% Celli said, regarding her daughter archly, %but I can#t imagine how skipping your embroidery class brought on such an appetite.% )ida blushed bright pink. %&ho told you'% Celli folded her arms under her breasts and lifted an eyebrow. %&ho do you think' 3id you e5pect 7emsy to

"ust o!erlook your absence' >f course she told me* 1he was concerned about shirking her duty to the Crown. -ou should ha!e considered that before you ran off without gi!ing her e!en a flimsy e5cuse.% %&ell, I wanted to ask 1tepfather about going riding after dinner,% )ida said, managing to sound contrite. ,incent and (ntony e5changed a /uick look, suppressing amused smiles. The e5cuse was definitely flimsy. %Call me ieran,% ieran said from behind them. %(nd your mother is right. -ou could ha!e asked me about going riding at dinner.% $e tapped )ida on the nose with his finger. %.mbroidery is an appropriate pursuit for a wellbred young lady.% )ida made a face. %I#d rather paint.% %Painting is also an e5cellent pursuit for a well-bred young lady,% ieran said with a warm chuckle, %and I belie!e 7emsy is also an accomplished artist. &hy don#t you ask her tomorrow when you apologi0e for skipping today#s lesson'% )ida hea!ed a long-suffering sigh. %>h, !ery well* 6ut if she agrees to teach me to paint, can I gi!e up embroidery' I hate pricking my fingers*% ieran grinned at Celli and the /ueen rolled her eyes. %-ou are /uite a trial, young lady,% she said. %I will consider it, but that#s all.% %Thank you*% )ida hugged ieran around the waist. .douard came in with 7oret0 on his heels. %&hat#s this' $anding out hugs without waiting for me'% $e held out his arms and all three children ran to hug him. $e kissed each of them on the top of the head. %This is always my fa!orite part of the day*% $e disentangled himself and went to kiss Celli on the cheek. Then he took ieran#s hand. %I hear they made grilled tomatoes.% %They did,% time.% ieran assured him, %and I didn#t e!en ask this

They mo!ed to the table and took their seats, and the attendants began ser!ing the meal. .!er since the three of them had gotten old enough to mo!e out of the nursery in their mother#s suite, the royal family had taken their meals together. 1ometimes, one of their parents would not be able to attend, but at least one of them was always there to eat with the children. >n special occasions, they ate in the ban/uet hall with do0ens of guests, but e!en then, the si5 of them would sit together. .douard had ne!er e5cluded them, e!en when they were small. It was this closeness that they shared that ,incent feared to lose should his magic be disco!ered. $e feared becoming an outcast from the family he lo!ed abo!e all else.

(fter dinner, .douard, Celli and 7oret0 left to attend the council meeting and ieran escorted the children to the courtyard. ;our saddled horses were waiting for them. The children had ridden ponies when they were younger, but now that they were starting to get closer to their adult height, they were gi!en horses. )ida still needed assistance to mount her horse since her mother insisted she wear a skirt and ride side-saddle like a proper lady, but (ntony and ,incent could mount their horses without help. &hen they were mounted, ieran led the way through the city and out into the countryside for their ride. It was twilight and there was always a sort of magical /uality to the lingering light at that time of day. They galloped along the coast highway, passing laborers returning home from work at the fine manor houses along the coast and the carriages of nobles heading out for the e!ening. (fter a short way, they turned off the highway and took a smaller road that wound through the rolling foothills north of the city. If they stayed on that road long enough, it would lead them to the !ast forest east of &hite 1hores that stretched far to the north and south, blanketing the mountains. ,incent always wondered what it would be like to e5plore that forest. 7adrin li!ed there9 magical creatures whose li!es were intertwined with the royal family. ,incent owed his life to a madrin. The creature had gi!en ieran the power to heal and it was through that power that ,incent#s life had been sa!ed at birth. $e had always wanted to meet one of the creatures, but they had become more reclusi!e in recent years. .!en Colwyn, a wi0ard well known for his ad!ocacy regarding madrin, had not seen one in o!er three years. Trotting along the road as darkness fell, ieran created se!eral balls of witch light to float along abo!e them. $e did it effortlessly, willing the balls of light to life on the palm of his hand and tossing them into the air. ,incent watched with a pounding heart. $e could see how ieran created the light. It was different from the light that pulsed under ,incent#s skin and poured off of his hands. &itch light had less substance than the light ,incent made, but he understood how to turn his natural light into witch light balls that could be released into the air. It was completely dark by the time they started back. ieran#s light balls did not shed a lot of light9 they mostly made it easier to see the road and watch for stones that might turn a horse#s ankle. It also allowed them to see the stars, which was part of the reason why they liked to go riding at night. %It#s so clear tonight*% )ida e5claimed happily. %-ou can e!en see the )ady#s ,eil.% 1he pointed up at the stars abo!e them, which formed a constellation called The 1eated )ady. The grouping of stars resembled a woman in a flowing gown seated in a chair and on clear nights, a

second grouping of stars swimming in a shimmering flow of dust could be seen near the woman#s head. %It#s beautiful,% ieran murmured, also looking up. They were all looking up when )ida#s horse suddenly shied, "umping to the side and half-rearing in panic. )ida cried out as the une5pected mo!ement caused her to slip partway out of her saddle, lea!ing her dangling by her left knee. 1he managed to tangle both hands into her horse#s main to keep from falling, but she could not right herself. % ieran*% The guttural growl of some large animal sent all four horses into a panic. Cursing angrily, ieran threw himself off his horse. $e landed awkwardly and rolled o!er on one shoulder before springing to his feet, facing in the direction of the unseen threat. ;ighting to get his horse under control and terrified by what might be happening to )ida, ,incent forgot about restraining his power. Pulling hard on the reins to keep his horse from breaking into panicked flight, sil!er light flowed out of his hands in a sudden torrent, spilling in all directions in a shimmering cascade. The effect it had was both comical and profound. The sil!er light brilliantly illuminated the menacing form of a big speckled cat nearly as large as ieran. ( night hunter, the cat#s big green eyes reflected the sil!er light in stunned surprise for a moment before it bounded away into the darkness. (t the same time, all four horses fro0e in place, their heads thrown up and their eyes rolling at the sight of what probably looked like water to them flowing around their ankles. ieran slowly turned around to stare at ,incent. ,incent stared back, his heart thumping loudly in his chest. There was no mistaking the source of the magical light. It was still running off his hands, flowing o!er his knees and splashing into the rippling pool that was slowly spreading across the road and into the tall grass on either side. ieran walked toward him calmly and took ,incent#s right hand between his. %$ow long has this been going on'% he asked /uietly. $e studied ,incent#s face, waiting for an answer. ,incent#s light was running o!er his hands, but ieran didn#t seem to notice. %:h8% ,incent s/uirmed in his saddle, not sure what to say. %It started about a year ago,% he finally admitted in a small !oice. :nconsciously, his eyes flicked to his siblings and ieran followed his ga0e. (ntony had urged his horse close to )ida#s in order to help her back into her saddle. The pair returned ieran#s ga0e with round eyes. %I suppose you two ha!e known all along'% 6rother and sister nodded /uickly, guilty e5pressions co!ering their faces. ieran turned back to ,incent. %-ou should ha!e told

me,% he said. %-ou should ha!e started training as soon as your power began manifesting.% %6ut I can#t be a wi0ard*% ,incent blurted out. Tears sprang into his eyes. %I#ll ha!e to lea!e the palace* I can#t be a prince and a wi0ard* That#s what e!eryone will say* I#ll cause trouble for ;ather*% %,incent*% ieran interrupted. $e s/uee0ed ,incent#s hand. %&e already knew.% ,incent#s mouth fell open, but no words came out. %&hat'% (ntony e5claimed. %-ou knew' $ow'% ieran released ,incent#s hand and stepped away, facing all three children. %&e#!e always known. There was a prophecy that one of you boys would be a wi0ard. -our mother#s family has a test that can detect a wi0ard#s power in a toddler as young as one year. -ou were all tested then and that#s when we knew.% $e caught ,incent#s eyes in a stern ga0e. %&e were waiting for you to manifest before we decided what to do. $iding it from us was probably not the best thing to do.% %6ut8% ,incent struggled to understand. %6ut why didn#t you tell me' &hy didn#t you tell me I was going to become a wi0ard'% ieran sighed. %6ecause we didn#t want you to grow up feeling you were different from your brother and sister. &e lo!e you all e/ually and you being a wi0ard won#t change that.% $e looked around at the e5panding pool of light. %Can you banish it'% ,incent nodded and focused his concentration on the light. There was a lot of it and it took more effort than normal to make it disappear, but he was able to do so. (t the same time, he stopped the flow of light spilling off his hands. ieran stepped back o!er and touched his hands. %3oes it re/uire effort to hold it in'% ,incent nodded again. %-es. If I don#t hold it in, my hands glow. If it#s been a long time, light leaks off and makes puddles. It#s tiring.% %I understand.% ieran smiled softly. %7agic accumulates and needs to be used, especially in young wi0ards like you.% %&ill I be sent away'% ,incent did not want to ask the /uestion, because he dreaded the answer, but he absolutely had to know. $is whole future was at stake. %That is for your father and mother to decide,% ieran said. $e beckoned to his horse and the animal walked o!er to him. ieran patted its nose before mounting. %-ou must tell them e!erything. There cannot be deception within the family. .!en unpleasant truths must be faced.% $e nudged his horse to a walk and the children did the same.

ieran said nothing else on the long ride back. &hen they reached the coast road, ,incent stared across the water. 6right Isle could not be seen from &hite 1hores, but he could imagine the dark bulk of the island resting on the water9 the glimmer of lights from the windows of )ands .nd and the &i0ards $all shining like the stars. $e had been to 6right Isle before, but the thought of being sent there alone terrified him. $e wanted to stay in &hite 1hores. 1er!ants met them in the courtyard as usual, holding the horses# heads while they dismounted. 6ack inside the palace, ieran led them without hesitation to .douard#s office. >nly .douard and Celli#s personal guards were in the antechamber and ieran acknowledged them with a slight nod as they passed through. $e knocked on the inner door and opened it immediately. .douard and Celli were alone, leaning o!er documents on .douard#s desk. %6ack already'% .douard began and then stopped when he saw ieran#s face. %&hat happened'% %&e ran into a leopard,% pale. ieran replied. Celli#s face went

%>n the coast road'% .douard demanded. %+o, we were about fi!e miles inland on the road to 2rea!es.% .douard rubbed his chin. %That#s pretty open country, but still an odd place to find a leopard. I#ll send trackers out to look for it in the morning. I#m surprised that none of the farmers around there ha!e reported it.% %I was too,% ieran said. .douard studied his face. %There#s something else.% %,incent is manifesting.% Celli put a hand o!er her mouth and her eyes went from ieran to .douard before coming to rest on ,incent, but she didn#t speak. .douard straightened up and folded his arms. %I see. 1how me.% $esitantly, ,incent raised his hands and let the light leak out. The glow was unmistakable and he flushed with shame. .douard regarded him silently for se!eral seconds before shifting his eyes to ieran. %I take it that what you saw was more dramatic.% %.!en this would ha!e been enough,% ieran answered, %but, yes, what happened on the road was a little more stunning.% %&hat shall we do'% Celli asked. $er !oice didn#t shake, but ,incent thought she sounded frightened. $e wondered if she was afraid of him.

%&e don#t ha!e much choice,% ieran replied. $e regarded Celli sadly. %The rules of the &i0ards $all are clear. I witnessed someone demonstrating wi0ard powers. 6y my oath, I must take him to the $all for testing. =udging by what I saw, they#re sure to keep him in the $all for training.% %6ut he#s so young*% Celli e5claimed. (bruptly, she ran to ,incent and enclosed him in her arms protecti!ely. %&hat if I don#t want him taken to the $all'% ieran put his arm around her waist and wrapped the other around ,incent#s shoulders. %&e don#t ha!e any choice, Celli. &e cannot insist that e!eryone else follow these rules and then not follow them oursel!es. I am a 4oyal &i0ard. I ha!e to take ,incent to the &i0ards $all now that I#!e seen his power.% Tears spilled out of Celli#s eyes and she rested her cheek on ,incent#s head. %It#s too soon*% she whispered. %&e knew it would happen one day, but it#s too soon* &e#re not ready*% .douard drew a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. % ieran#s right, Celli. I don#t like it, either, but I ha!e to abide by the rules of this kingdom as much as anyone. ,incent must go to the &i0ards $all.%