“I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care.” Victor closed his eyes and chanted the words over and over again, sometimes aloud, sometimes to himself.
When he opened them again, he heaved a sigh.
He did care. Very much. And as soon as he finished cleaning his room for the hundredth time, he was going to find the asses responsible and kick them around the training grounds until they were black and blue from head to toe. Well, he would if he had not promised Trey he would avoid that sort of fighting. He would just wait until drills and kick them around then.
“The bastards,” he muttered beneath his breath. Throwing his training leathers and sword on his bed – which had been completely wrecked, they’d even thrown his furs on the floor. The dusty, damp sections not covered by a rug so now his bedding was dirty in addition to everything else.
The ticking was a mess, the furs were filthy, the tapestry had been torn from the window. His clothes were strewn about, his boots – he could not even find three of them. His medicine chest had been upended, the pillows thrown about, ashes from the fire raked out and added to the mess.
Victor closed his eyes again and counted slowly backwards from one hundred as Dunstan had taught him.
It was not helping. This was the third time this week his room had been torn apart and he had to be ready for the ball in just three hour’s time. It would take him that long to right the mess, never mind the time it would take to clean his clothing.
His eyes burned as he worked, and he blinked rapidly in an attempt to clear his suddenly blurred vision.
Why did they think it was funny? Was it a crime to want things neat instead of messy? He spent all day in the grass and the dirt, getting sweaty and hot and sore. Did he not have the right to come back to his clean room and rest a bit?
Angrily Victor snatched up a shirt covered in ashes – then let out a long, loud string of curses.
They had even ruined the incense Dunstan had given him for his birthday!
Victor gave up cleaning and abruptly sat down, burying his face in his hands, fingers tangling in his unruly orange-red curls. He hated his hair, all springy and curly and bright. It wasn’t dark and handsome like Morgan’s, oh no. He had to have hair the color of some maid’s festival gown. Sure, Dunstan said it was pretty. But Dunstan was supposed to say that.
He did not have the patience for it tonight. All day he had worked, only to return to this disaster. And there was no way he could clean his clothes again to be ready for the beginning of the festival.
Trey would be mad at him later, but there was no helping that. Nodding to himself at his decision, Victor rose and retrieved his leathers and sword. He took the servants’ hallways and stairs, sneaking out the back of the castle and then around to the stables, dressing as he went.
No one was about. Not really a surprise – everyone was eager for the ball that would open the Autumn Festival. Victor focused on sneaking out of the castle, and not on his ruined velvet tunic and brand new boots covered in soot and dust.
Damn them all anyway.
He led his horse from the stable, urging the black stallion to a full gallop only when he was well clear of the castle walls.
Eventually he slowed down, stopping completely when he came to the brook that signaled the beginning of the forest that stretched all the way to the border the North shared with the South and West.
Victor knelt by the brook and scooped water into his hands, drinking deeply before falling back on the bank and gazing up at the star-strewn sky. Around him the wind rattled the dry leaves that were already red and brown and gold for autumn. The cry of a hawk made him turn, and he smiled at the dark shadow watching him from the branch of a tree as he stood up. He held out his arm and the hawk flew to it. He stroked the white feathers of her breast. “Hail, Luna. How fairs the hunting?” He smiled and murmured quietly to her for a few more minutes, then laughed as she began to grow restless. “Thank you, beautiful lady. I shall see you later.” He threw his arm up, launching her into the sky, and watched as she rose higher and higher, vanishing out of sight.
He sighed again and stretched out in the grass, mind consumed once more by unhappy thoughts. If he could just make it to the Winter Festival, he could see Trey and Dunstan again. Why could he not just go home? He rolled over on his side, light-blue eyes sliding shut—
—Victor sat up with a jerk, looking around anxiously.
Was that a scream? He scrambled to his feet, loosing his sword in its scabbard and mounting Briar. Another faint scream – was there more than one? – broke the still night and Victor urged Briar forward, and they raced through the woods, following the sounds that grew ever louder.
At last they broke into a clearing, a wide field that had been made into the sight of a battle.
Victor paused at the threshold, examining the combatants – then spotted a crest he knew could not be right on of one the knights attempting to attack a man who was half-running, half-stumbling in Victor’s direction. Drawing his sword, Victor spurred Briar forward, taking the attacking knights by surprise – they had not seen him in the line of trees – sending one to the ground and the other clutching a deep wound and clinging to his horse for dear life as it sped off blindly into the woods.
“Grab my hand,” Victor shouted, and the man who had been running for his life obeyed without hesitation, swinging up behind Victor as he turned his horse. Reaching into a small pouch at his waist, Victor grabbed a handful of a fine, shimmering, white powder and threw it into the air. “Mist!” he cried, then urged Briar on with his heels. Behind them the fine powder lingered in the air, the wind catching it and turning the powder into a thick mist. “Hold tight!” Victor shouted back to the man who was already clinging to him for dear life. Tightening his own grip, Victor bent low over his horse as Briar raced through the forest.
The sun was rising before they broke free of the forest, into a wide field. Far on the horizon was the image of a structure – the castle. Somehow or another they’d wound up outside much farther west than they should have. “Briar!” He glowered at his horse as he dismounted and led him to drink at a nearby stream. “You are going to be the death of me. You weren’t supposed to take us here, you dratted horse.”
“Thank you,” the stranger he had saved whispered as he slid from Briar’s back. “I owe you my life.”
Victor blinked. Blinked again. “You-you are Eastern!” And now he felt silly, for looking at the man was enough to tell he was from the East.
The man smiled. “Yes, I am.”
“Wh-what are you doing here?”
The stranger shook his head, long black hair swishing across his back and spilling over his shoulders. “I should be in the South, but I would hazard to say we accidentally made our way quite a bit more North than we should have.”
“More than a bit,” Victor said. “You are but a few miles from the Northern Capital.”
The man winced visibly. “I had no idea they had forced us so far off course.” He sighed heavily. “What a mess this has become.”
“The West is good for causing trouble – though you probably already knew that. Just wait a little while and we will be able to get help from the castle.” Victor walked toward the center of the clearing, tilting his head up to look at the sky.
Above them a hawk was circling, spiraling downward and eventually landing on Victor’s outstretched arm. He stroked her feathers. “Hail, Luna. That’s my girl.” Reaching into a small pouch at his waist, Victor tied a small strip of red ribbon around the hawk’s foot. “Take it to Topaz, Luna.” Victor launched her into the air and watched for a moment. He turned back to the stranger he had saved. “You are not hurt, are you? I should have tended to that first.” He bit his lip.
The man shook his head. “Merely a few scrapes and bruises; nothing of consequence. You have my eternal gratitude, sir knight.”
“I am Victor of Bellewood, Knight of the North.” Victor sketched a bow. “At your service.”
“I am Amir of the East.” Amir returned the bow, hair falling over his shoulder like dark water.
Victor started. “A prince?”
“Indeed.” Amir seemed amused. “I was on my way to visit the Southern Queen.”
“Why?” Victor shook his head. “But it is not my place to ask such questions. Are you certain you are all right, Highness?”
“I am fine. And please, Amir is fine. I could not demand formality of the one who saved my life.”
Victor brushed the words aside. “It would have been more commendable if I had saved your men as well.”
Sorrow filled Amir’s face. And anger. “Retribution will have to suffice . But first we must get word to my family, and explain to them what has occurred.” He looked at Victor. “I was attacked in the North, by knights who looked as though they wanted to be thought of as Northern.”
“They were Western!” Victor said furiously, angry at the knights who had dared to try and incriminate him and his comrades.
“So I realized when I saw you,” Amir said calmly. “I had thought it rather strange anyway. Though now I wonder what the West is about.”
Victor waved the questions aside. “Come, we must get to the castle. We are only safe in the forest until they manage to find us again – and if they were able to drive you this far off course, I have no doubt they can track us even through the mist.”
Amir nodded and climbed up behind Victor, arms twining around his waist. “About that mist – how did you do that? I have never heard of magic like that outside my own country, though it is not quite the same thing. I thought Northern magic was a matter of incantations.”
“It is – a real sage would not need the powder to cast a spell. But I am no sage, I merely have an affinity with the powder. My fathers believe it is because I grew up surrounded by so much magic.”
“It was most impressive, as is your hawk. My brother would be jealous you have such a fine bird so well trained.” Amir was quiet a moment, then spoke again with humor in his voice. “Though really, I think it is of me my brother would be most jealous.” He smiled at Victor. “There is much about this situation he would find favorable.”
Victor frowned, confused. “What do you mean? I cannot imagine there is anything about this situation one would find favorable.”
“It is true I would rather this night had not occurred, as it has cost me men who I considered friends.” Amir smiled. “However, my brother believes in taking advantage of all opportunities…it is why he misbehaves so much. But I am confusing you with my ramblings. Ignore me. That truly is a beautiful bird, and so well trained.”
Victor smiled softly. “She is not trained. I found her injured when I was a child, and nursed her back to health. Luna has been my companion ever sense.”
“You are remarkably gentle for a knight,” Amir said softly.
Victor flushed anew, unconsciously tensing at the words. He tightened his grip on the reins, urging Briar on, waiting for the barb or the laugh that always followed the observation that he was not exactly what a knight should be.
“I meant no offense, forgive me.” Amir still spoke softly, but his voice carried over the rush of wind and the smacking of branches against them, the pounding of Briar’s hooves in the earth. “In my country, it is a compliment. I forget that elsewhere it is an insult for a man to be thought gentle.”
“No,” Victor pulled Briar to a halt. “You—there is no offense taken, Prince. I thank you for your kind words. Now be silent; the forest is too quiet and I do not trust it.” Reaching into his pouch, Victor pulled out a small handful of the fine powder he had thrown before. But rather than out, this time he threw it up. “Shadow,” he whispered. The powder fell down upon them, a soft, dry rain. “Briar, take us home. Prince, hold tight.”
“Amir,” the prince insisted before falling silent.
They rode in silence, Briar charging through the dark woods as though they were an empty field, the moonlight above offering just enough light to make the shadows in the forest deeper. Nearly an hour later they finally broke from the trees. Victor dismounted as they crested a hill, shoulders sagging in relief to see not only Luna , high above in the air, but several knights thundering toward them, following the hawk.
Amir cried out behind him and Victor turned in time to see the prince fall. “Prince! Amir!” he rushed forward, catching Amir before he hit the ground. He hissed in dismay at the sight of the arrow jutting out of Amir’s shoulder. “Steady, Amir.” And before Amir could tense, he reached back and tore the arrow out, holding Amir close as the prince screamed and shuddered in his arms. He looked up as the knights appeared, forming a circle around them. “Topaz!” he cried, relieved to see the dragon. “I think the arrow was poisoned.”
Topaz began barking orders. Victor extracted a small bit of his powder, sprinkling it into the arrow wound. “Heal,” he whispered, hoping it would suffice to keep Amir alive until they could get him real help at the castle. He looked anxiously at the pale, trembling prince – who only moments ago had been nothing more than tired and strained. “Come, Prince. We must get you to the castle. Can you climb up on my horse?”
“Yes,” Amir managed, and with Victor’s help he managed to mount Briar. Victor climbed up behind him, holding tightly to Amir. He exchanged a glance with Topaz, then turned and once more urged his horse forward. “I know you are tired, Briar, but make one more run for me. Home, Briar.”
The horse obeyed, galloping for the keep as though he had all the energy in the world to spare.
Victor hovered in the doorway, uncertain of whether to announce himself or go. But the decision was made for him when Topaz caught sight of him and motioned Victor into the room.
“A job well done, Victor.” Bran said from where he stood near the window.
“Even if doing said job required you leave without permission and miss the festivities,” Topaz interjected dryly.
“My apologies,” Victor said, cheeks turning red.
“They are not necessary,” Topaz said more gently. “I sent a servant to fetch you and was informed on the state of your room. If you would but tell me the culprits responsible, I could address the matter and put an end to it.”
Victor shook his head. “It is my problem to deal with, Lord Topaz, not yours. If you’ll pardon my rudeness.”
Bran chuckled. “You are much like your father. If I did not know for a fact that you were adopted, I would fully believe you are Trey’s blood.”
Victor smiled, honestly happy for the first time in several days. “Thank you, Majesty.”
Topaz and Bran laughed.
“How is he?” Victor asked anxiously, looking at Amir who was still pale, sleeping fitfully.
“Recovering,” Topaz said. “It will take him a long time. You are the only reason he is still alive, Victor.” The dragon looked at him, face serious, brown-gold eyes hard. “I mean it – the only reason. I do not know what the West is about, attempting to assassinate an Eastern Prince, but I mean to find out.”
Bran crossed his arms across his wide chest. “In the mean time we must send someone East. I do not think a simple message will suffice this time around.” He looked at Victor. “Go get something to eat. I would imagine you have not eaten since the midday meal. The prince will be fine.”
Victor nodded at the dismissal and departed, letting his feet carry him obediently toward the kitchen. His mind wandered over the night’s events, replaying each of them and making him wonder what he could have done to prevent the arrow. How had they noticed them? The shadow he’d cast should have made them all but invisible to most eyes. What would Trey have done? But Trey would be the first to say that was an unfair comparison, since—Victor’s thoughts scattered as he tripped over an unseen obstacle in his path, barely catching himself on his hands in time to prevent smashing his face against the stone floor.
He cringed at the familiar laughter that filled the halls, realizing that he had been so lost in thought he had failed to notice the foot in his way. “Comrades,” he said slowly, climbing to his feet, fighting the urge to brush dust from his already filthy tunic. “You are up late.”
“George!” a dark-haired knight smacked his friend lightly upside the head. “Do you see what you did? You got his Lordship’s tunic dirty. You know how Lord Bath detests dirt.”
Victor ignored them, standing silently as the jests and jeers continued, fighting the urge to show them all the sharp end of his daggers. It would serve no purpose but to make them angrier, and he would wind up disappointing Trey and Dunstan. “Are you quite finished?”
“Quite,” a blonde haired knight mimicked. “Do forgive us, if we are keeping you from finding further means by which to kiss up to the King and Royal Advisor. We would not want to keep you here, talking to us more lowly knights.”
“That—” Victor gave up. What was the point? According to all the knights who should be his friends, he was nothing but a fussy soldier made knight solely because his fathers were close friends with the king and royal advisor. ‘Lord Bath’ they had taken to calling him not long after his arrival for training at the castle. He said nothing, merely turned and walked away, ignoring as best he could the taunts and jeers that chased after him.
The kitchens were empty when he reached them, for the hour was late enough that even the servants had found their beds. Scrounging for a few minutes, Victor left with a small loaf of bread, some cheese and a dried apple. He was halfway to his room when he remembered that it still needed cleaning. Suppressing a sigh, he continued on toward it anyway, for there was nowhere else to eat that would grant him the peace and quiet he craved after the long night. And he had to be awake in a few hours anyway – thought at least, if the others had been awake, he would not be the only exhausted knight on the training grounds in the morning.
Victor stumbled to a halt as he entered his room. His room was clean. It was perfect. Exactly as he had left it before the asses had destroyed it. No doubt Topaz had ordered it cleaned. Victor smiled and moved to sit on the small rug beside the fireplace – a gift from Dunstan, who knew how much he liked sitting by the fire but hated the hard, dirty floor. Most of the things in his room were gifts from Dunstan or Trey, a couple from Topaz and Bran. But there was nothing from his comrades, or tourney tokens from the girls who liked to watch the knights compete.
Not that he would ever have pursued whatever might be implied by the giving of a token, but it would have been nice if for once someone had cheered for him at tourney. But why would anyone cheer for Lord Bath?
Victor shoved his thoughts aside, too tired to bear facing them. Things would work out, one way or the other. If nothing else, he would finish his time at the castle in another nine months and could return to the black castle.
He was jarred awake by hard shaking, and a servant urgently calling his name. “Sir Victor! Sir Victor!”
“I’m awake!” Victor sat up, instantly alert. “What is the problem?”
“His Majesty wants to see you immediately. He is with the sick prince and commands you come at once. He also says to dress for travel but to leave you armor.”
“I will be there at once,” Victor said. He began to dress hastily, heart beating rapidly in his chest. What was wrong that the king would summon him well before dawn? Victor stifled a yawn, feeling as though he’d not slept a wink. He left his armor as instructed, donning only an older dark blue tunic over which he put his heavier black jerkin and gauntlets. Similar leggings were covered by high-cut black leather boots. He was protected but would not be slowed down by his full armor. His sword belt, sword and three daggers went next. Last of all he attached the powder pouch. He paused long enough to comb the worst of the knots from his hair, tying back what he could with a black thong.
Minutes later he was at the prince’s door, knocking softly. He slid inside at the call to enter and bowed to Bran. “Majesty.”
“Victor,” a soft, accented voice repeated his name.
“Amir!” Victor smiled. “You are awake.” Still too pale but not deathly. “I am glad too see you recovering. I apologize I could not stop that arrow.” He bowed his head. “I should have watched our backs better.”
“You are not the only one trained to be more cautious and it is because of you that I am alive at all. I owe you my life.”
“Nonsense,” Victor said staunchly, cheeks flushed pink. “I am a knight; it is my duty and honor to help where I can.”
“We have a task for you, Victor.” Bran interrupted, though he looked pleased with the young knight.
Victor bowed. “I will do whatever my king asks of me.”
“You are much like your father,” Topaz said. “Except that you do not argue half so much. I shall have to point it out to him.”
Victor grinned, but sobered again when Brand and Topaz returned to the matter at hand. “I think, Victor, that you understand a bit of what clouds the horizon.”
“Western knights pretended to be Northern and nearly succeeded in assassinating Prince Amir. If I had not happened to be nearby they would have ensured that the East blamed us for it, and we would be unable to provide adequate explanation until too late.”
Bran nodded in approval. “We have sent word to the East of what little we know. But we need to send an emissary to explain in person what transpired. As you are the only one who was present, we will be sending you.”
Victor nearly fell over in shock. “What? Highness? Send me? To the East?”
Amir laughed. “Of course you should be sent, why do you sound so surprised? Even if they had not decided that themselves, I would have insisted.” Amir motioned him forward; Victor went slowly. The prince’s hands were decorated with myriad rings – gold, silver, a rainbow of jewels scattered among them. But from the third finger of his right hand he removed a ring that was comparatively plain, merely a band of interwoven silver and gold. “Take this. Show it to all who would challenge you. It is a gift from Amir of the East to Victor of Bellewood from the North.”
“Take it,” Amir insisted, every inch the commanding prince though he lay sick in bed. “And whosoever tries to take it from you,” he spoke almost as if reciting a spell. “Will suffer the wrath of the Eastern throne.”
Willing his fingers not to shake, for already he felt as though he had been tossed into a lake with rocks fastened to his feet, Victor accepted the ring and slid into on the third finger of his right hand. Though it should have been too large, for Amir was bigger than he, the ring fit perfectly. Amir caught his arm as he pulled away, and tugged Victor far enough down that he could lean up to softly kiss his cheek. “Go in peace, my friend.” Amir laughed. “Tell my brother that I order him to behave.”
Victor blinked, wishing for the millionth time that his skin did not flush every time he was unsettled, and managed a nod. He was sinking fast into waters well out of his depth. “I do not think I am a fit emissary, Highness.” He looked at Bran anxiously.
“I think you will surprise yourself, Victor.” Bran settled a hand on his shoulder. “Remember the men that raised you, and that you make them – and us – proud with everything you do. Your actions last night only further prove what many of us already know.”
Topaz nodded, agreeing. “Your things should be packed by now. I am sorry we can not make a fuss of this for you, to put those little brats you call peers in their places.” He strode over and grasped Victor’s chin, forcing the young knight to look him in the face. “You are not Lord Bath. You are Sir Victor of Bellewood. No matter what anyone says, you earned that place. Now—” He dropped his grip and stepped away. “Sir Victor. Make for the East with all due haste. Should you encounter trouble, send word. When you have reached your destination, inform me at once.”
Victor bowed, one hand fisted over his heart. “Yes, Lord Advisor. Majesty. Prince.” Gulping, Victor bowed once more and then departed, heart in his throat as he all but ran for the stables – but stepping out into the courtyard he found his horse ready and waiting for him, tended by a young stable boy. “Sir Victor!” the young boy smiled, obviously happy despite the sleep-heavy eyes half hidden by straggly brown hair.
“Good Morning, Richard.” Victor ruffled his hair. “Thank you for preparing Briar for me.”
“He’s my favorite horse,” the boy confided. “The others are all so mean.”
Victor laughed. “Yes, I know all about mean horses. And he likes you too.” Victor fumbled in his purse for a moment and pulled out a few coins. “Here, Richard. For you and your mother. Now get back to bed scamp – if anyone tells you to do otherwise, tell them I ordered it so.”
The boy beamed and hugged Victor as best he could, barely reaching his waist. Far too young for the stables, but somehow the boy managed. “Thank you, Sir Victor!” Richard hugged him again and then dashed off.
“Well, Briar. I hope you are more rested than I.” Victor pet his horse fondly, laughing softly as the horse nuzzled him back. He reached into a small side pocket of his powder pouch and withdrew a small square – powder which had been made into a paste and then hardened to form a sort of candy or pill. He fed it to Briar, who like him had grown up eating the strange sweet. Patting him one last time, Victor moved around and swung up into the saddle. “Come, Briar. We go to the East.”
He rode hard, stopping only once when the quiet early morning was shattered by a hawk’s cry and he halted Briar that Luna might alight on his arm. She nipped gently at his fingers and Victor laughed. “I see someone had a fine hunt. You are the most beautiful woman in the wild. Would you come with me to the East?” He stroked her gray and white feathers and let her nip at his fingers some more, then threw his arm up to release her into the sky. “Come, my Lady of the Sky. Show me how best to reach the East.” He took off again, laughing at the cries that guided him, worries temporarily forgotten.
It took six days with Luna’s guidance, and Victor knew she had saved him at least a day’s time.
The East, unlike the other three countries, was notoriously reclusive. They communicated, and kept peace with everyone, but it was not often you saw more than a merchant or occasional wanderlust-stricken traveler. Their borders were walled and rigidly guarded – Victor wondered what Prince Amir had been about that no one had known a royal caravan had been headed for the Southern capital.
He dismounted some distance from the gate, which was guarded by at least a half dozen soldiers, and approached at a slow walk. He stopped when he was still several feet from them.
“Who are you?” a soldier demanded, speaking in the language common to all four countries but with a slow, heavy accent.
Victor bowed, letting go of Briar’s reins. “I am Victor of Bellewood, a Knight of the North. I have come to speak with the Eastern King about his son, Prince Amir.”
The guards began to speak in their own language and Victor listened, fascinated by the strangeness of it – so different from the short, course words of his own language, from the slightly smoother tones of the common language. It was…pretty, in a strange way. He jumped when the guard – perhaps a Captain – turned abruptly back to him. “What do you know of Amir?”
“I know I must speak to the King, not to you.” Victor tensed when the man approached him with sword drawn.
“Prince Amir was attacked, many are saying by your people.” He held the tip of his sword to Victor’s neck. “Have you come to curry favor, realizing too late your mistake in attacking our Prince?”
“Nay,” Victor said, lifting his hand to pull the sword away, left hand loosening his own sword in its scabbard. He blinked at the look of shock on the Captain’s face, confused when the man dropped his sword and back away, bowing low. “What…”
“We did not realize, Lord Knight. We beg your pardon.”
Victor looked at them with a puzzled frown, then shifted his gaze to follow where the Captain’s eyes pointed.
The ring Amir had given him.
The Captain was once more speaking rapidly to the other guards. He motioned Victor forward. “Mount your horse, I will have my men take you to the palace. Forgive my rudeness.”
“There is nothing to forgive,” Victor said as he mounted Briar. A soldier beckoned to Victor, motioning him through the gate. Once beyond it, he spurred them to a faster pace. Victor murmured quietly to his horse, promising him all manner of treats and lots of rest as reward for the rigors through which Victor had put him the past several days.
He rather hoped for a nap himself, but he doubted he would be that fortunate for at least another day or two.
They reached the palace by nightfall and Victor hoped his astonishment did not show on his face.
It was beautiful, and so unlike the heavy stones of the castles back home. It seemed to spread out all over, rather than build up. So many arches and open halls, moonlight and fresh air going everywhere. He caught glimpses of mosaics and tapestries and paintings as he was sped along by guards and men in courtly garb, exhaustion fading beneath an onslaught of anxiety and fear. Victor took a deep breath as he was escorted into what could only be the throne room, though he had never seen one like it.
Not a long, stark hall with a single carpet and rows of knights and crested tapestries hanging between sconces. Muted torches and soft, deep rugs, the smell of strange, exotic incense and a man more sprawled than seated in a chair that looked far too comfortable to be a throne.
They were dressed strangely, in patterned silks of so many colors it made Victor dizzy to look at them all, and slippers rather than sturdy boots on their feet. A young woman played a stringed instrument he did not recognize, though as he approached she and all but one other figure were dismissed with nothing but a wave from the massive man in a dark red turban seated on the throne. Victor kept his eyes fixed rigidly on that man, afraid that if he looked elsewhere he would lose himself to gawking at the bizarre, beautiful room.
Not certain what to do, Victor knelt before the king and bowed his head.
“You are the knight I was told would be coming to see me,” the king said, his accent barely discernible. “Show me the ring.”
Victor looked up only briefly, still uncertain of the etiquette – he should have thought to ask Amir! – and simply held out his right hand for the king to see.
A large, warm calloused hand took his, thumb brushing over the ring. “It is Amir’s ring,” a deep voice rumbled, the accent only slightly more pronounced than the king’s. Victor shivered, something about the voice jarring him. But still he did not look up.
“Come, stand,” the voice said. “Any who bears such a ring does not kneel before the King.”
Victor allowed himself to be tugged to his feet and slowly raised his eyes to regard the owner of the striking voice.
It felt like his heart stopped, just for a moment, before it started beating far faster than could be healthy.
The man was…beautiful. There was no other word for him. He obviously was related to Amir, perhaps a year or so younger – still a few years older than Victor – but his beauty far surpassed any Victor had seen. Even Dunstan and Beatrice, by whom he compared all others, could not match this exotic stranger. His hair was long, neatly braided and flowing over one shoulder. Victor was vaguely reminded of Topaz in the way the stranger wore jewels in his ears, two small emeralds in each ear and a small silver cuff high on his right ear. The emeralds, he saw, matched the man’s eyes. His robes, a dark green pattern with vines a shade or two lighter clung to his tall, lithe frame. And unlike the others Victor had glimpsed earlier, he wore low cut boots rather than slippers. Like his brother, his fingers were decorated with a wide spectrum of rings, his wrists weighed down by silver and jewel bracelets.
Victor looked hastily away, willing his cheeks for once not to give him away – but by the chuckles of the king, as well as the burning he could feel, his cheeks had as usual gone bright red.
“Shahzad,” said the king, motioning the man away. “Stop unsettling him. How many times have I told you not to lurk so around people? Come, come.”
“Yes, father.” Shahzad slowly let go of Victor’s hand and returned to stand at his father’s side.
Victor suddenly found it much easier to breathe and let out a slow sigh.
“What is your name, young knight?” the King asked quietly, stroking his short black and gray beard.
“I am Victor of Bellewood.”
“Bellewood?” Shahzad said with a thoughtful frown. “An unusual name. I thought that language fell into disuse ages ago.”
“It did,” Victor said, immediately rising to the chance to speak of the place he called home. “The name remains as a tribute to its original owners. My family’s ties to that lost race run deep.”
“I see,” Shahzad with the ghost of a smile. “Tell me how you rescued my brother, for we have heard frustratingly little of what transpired. I would know why my brother entrusted his ring to you.”
Face turning red, for he hated to be the center of attention and Shahzad – Prince Shahzad’s attention was nothing less than completely nerve wracking.
“Who sits on the throne, I wonder.” The king said aloud. “Shahzad, do let me tend to matters, hmm? I am not so old as that, quite yet.”
“Of course, father.” Shahzad grinned, not looking terribly apologetic. “My apologies.”
The king rumbled something beneath his breath in his native language and waved a hand at Victor. “Tell us what transpired, and how you came to wear my son’s ring.”
Victor nodded and began to relate what had occurred.
The king was stroking his beard in thought again as Victor finished. “I did not realize we had made the West our enemies. Shahzad, with who in that country did you misbehave?”
Shahzad smirked. “No one, father. At least no one important enough to start a war over.”
“Hmm…” his father continued to muse. “I feel Lord Topaz was correct in saying we were being used against the North.” He slid his sharp, dark eyes to Victor. “Your King and the West have long had hostile relations.”
“Only because the West refuses to unbend,” Victor said loyally. “King Bran has often made attempts at peace.”
The King nodded. “Perhaps we should play along? What say you, Shahzad?”
Shahzad’s green eyes sparkled with mirth and mischief. “Take a hostage, you mean? Demand the return of my precious brother, whom the North has unjustly kidnapped?”
Victor started, not quite comprehending the sudden turn. “What…”
“Something your Lord Topaz suggested,” the King explained. “In his last missive. The West seeks to create hostilities between us. For a time I think we shall give them the illusion of exactly that. It is not only your country for which the Western King creates trouble. Perhaps we can catch him in his own trap, hmm?”
Victor nodded slowly, mentally making a note to clobber a certain scheming dragon when next he saw him. “So I am your hostage?” he asked, unable to keep his lips from twitching in amusement. The idea of him being valuable enough to take hostage was laughable – but no doubt they would make it work.
“Yes,” Shahzad said. Victor was uncertain what to make of the look in his eyes, which had darkened.
Whatever it meant, it was nothing next to the abject relief he suddenly felt at realizing he had completed the task given to him – and with no serious error. But with relief, Victor suddenly felt every ache and bruise acquired in his hectic ride, and the exhaustion that was the result of barely sleeping for six long, anxiety-ridden days. The world titled, and by sheer force of will he righted it, telling himself to hold on just a bit longer.
The king frowned at him in sudden concern. “Shahzad, have someone summoned to show our hostage to his dungeon.”
Shahzad chuckled, and even near to collapsing Victor felt the laugh in every fiber of his body. The prince rang a bell and from seemingly no where a servant appeared, bowing low before the king and prince. “Take him to his room,” the king commanded. “If it is not ready, take him to Amir’s.”
The servant nodded and motioned for Victor to follow him. Victor took two steps, then saw nothing but black.
He woke to the familiar cry of a hawk, far too loud when it was in an enclosed space. Victor groaned as he sat up; it felt as though not a single part of his body was free of aches and pains. But Luna’s cries distracted him and he turned toward the sound—
—And felt his heart do that strange stopping thing again. Prince Shahzad stood before a balcony, early morning sunlight spilling over him, absorbed by his midnight hair and setting his dark red tunic aflame. He held one silk-clad arm high, free hand stroking Luna’s feathers. Victor was impressed and hurt, because until that moment Luna had never gone to any arm but his. Even Topaz could only approach the perch Victor had made for her at the castle. But she acted with Shahzad as she did with Victor.
He started to rise, then realized he was naked and sank back into the voluminous blankets, face scarlet.
Shahzad seemed not to notice – or was at least polite enough to pretend. “A beautiful bird, Knight. What is her name?”
“Luna,” Victor said, licking his dry lips.
“Luna,” Shahzad repeated. “I bet you could put my hunters to shame.” He slid his green eyes to Victor. “You must be something special, to befriend a queen such as this.”
Victor ducked his head. “Fortune favored me, that is all.”
“Mmm…” Shahzad said noncommittally.
Victor jerked his head up at the sound of rustling wings, lifting his arm only just in time to catch the hawk that landed upon it.
“Most impressive,” Shahzad murmured. “Even bare skinned, her talons leave not a mark upon you. The queen loves her knight indeed.”
Victor smiled and lifted his fingers for Luna to nip. “I missed you as well, my lady. But you seem to be growing fat just fine. I hope you are not killing what you ought not.” The hawk looked at him from one dark, sharp eye as if in severe disapproval. Victor laughed. “Of course not, forgive me. Thank you for coming to see me. Now go, I know you cannot like being indoors.” Luna nipped at his fingers once more, then pushed off his arm and flew back to Shahzad, who carried her out to the balcony and loosed her into the sky.
“Your clothes are there,” Shahzad said as he returned. He pointed to a divan beyond the bed.
Victor frowned. “Those are not my clothes.”
“They are while you are here. What you wore is quite beyond repair – or least beyond getting the smell of horse and sweat out.” Shahzad winked.
Angrily ignoring his burning cheeks – must they always do that? – Victor tried to apologize. “I am sorry – I am not usually so messy. It was…I was in a hurry.”
Shahzad’s soft laughter interrupted his clumsy explanations. “Knight, you need not apologize for doing your job well.”
“Why do you keep calling me that?” Victor asked. “Is there some custom that prevents your using my name?”
“I would never use your name without being given permission. Surely that is not an unusual custom?”
“Of course not,” Victor said, feeling foolish. “I guess I am just too used to everyone knowing me. Please, call me Victor. Formality is not something to which I am accustomed.”
Shahzad smiled, making Victor’s chest feel all strange again. The prince was of far too high a caliber for him. Victor wished he was tired enough to plead a need for more rest. On the other hand, at least he was not so tired he would humiliate himself by collapsing a second time. “Very well then, Victor. You must call me Shahzad. Everyone else does,” he smiled playfully. “And it usually preceded or followed by a less kind epithet. You will find I am not quite as prettily mannered as my brother.”
Victor suddenly recalled something, daring a smile in return. “Amir told me to tell you that he orders you to behave.”
Shahzad threw his head back and laughed, entire body shaking with it. His eyes were a bright, jewel green when he again looked at Victor. “My brother perhaps knows me too well; it is the price one pays for having a brother, I suppose. Now I shall leave you to dress. When you are ready, I shall show you around the palace.” His smile as he left was one Victor knew all too well – it meant trouble.
And trouble, as it turned out, came in the shape of almost a half dozen women, who promptly attacked Victor and wrestled him into his clothes, did battle with his hair and spoke in a way that made him turn bright scarlet even though he understood not a word of what they said.
Victor looked at himself in wonder, shaking his head slowly in disbelief. He did not look like himself at all in the strange eastern robes. They were dark blue, an underlying abstract pattern set into the fabric. The fastenings were at his right shoulder, elaborate knots secured with small hooks. The pants were of the same color, so light and loose it hardly seemed he wore them.
Only his dratted hair remained unchanged, though the women were still fighting valiantly with it. Victor shook his head and gently edge away from them. He tugged at a stray curl. “You are fighting a lost cause, I assure you.” The women laughed, and Victor turned and fled. He turned back only long enough to grab his pouch. Though he felt naked without his sword, wearing it was out of the question. The powder would have to do.
Shahzad laughed at his face when he saw him. “So that is not a custom in your country?”
“You mean it is a custom here?”
“Certainly. I am not so cruel as to make up things like that.” Shahzad grinned and motioned for them to walk. “You should see what they do to me.” He tugged lightly at his long braid. “I bear a thousand pains every morning because not a female in this place will trust me with my own hair. You should have heard the screeching that resulted the one time I cut it off.” He shook his head ruefully. “Anyone who thinks the royal family rules the palace is someone who has not spent more than five minutes in it.”
Victor burst out laughing.
Shahzad smiled, and gently took his arm to lead Victor around the palace. “And here is the royal garden – again the women seem to own it and are kind enough to allow us to make use of it…” he trailed off, watching as Victor wandered off like a man possessed into the garden.
“These are beautiful,” Victor said, reaching out to gingerly touch a pink rose so pale it almost seemed white at first glance. “Like the inside of a seashell.” He moved toward a bush of roses that were pale peach in color. “And these. I’ve never seen such a color. Dunstan would gladly give an arm to obtain a cutting.”
Shahzad tilted his head, surprised and curious. “You are fond of roses.”
Victor smiled shyly. “My…” he frowned, suddenly uncertain. “One of the men who raised me loves roses. His garden is unequaled by any other in the North – and until now I would have said in the world. These roses could be their equal, if only because they are so different. So many pale, soft shades. But I see no dark colors, like the ‘Queen’s Blood’ of which Dunstan is fond.”
“My late mother did not favor dark roses; she said they unsettled her.”
“I see.” Victor nodded. “I do not think a rose exists which Dunstan would not love. But then, his reasons are unique.”
“You shall have to tell me sometime,” Shahzad said. “I sense an interesting story behind your words.”
Victor nodded. “Sometime. What is next?”
“The training grounds? I am certain as a knight you would find those interesting, and it is the only place we get any peace from the women.”
Victor laughed. “Would it be all right if I practiced some mornings? I do not like to fall out of practice while I am being held hostage.”
“Whatever you want is yours,” Shahzad replied. “That ring gives you all the status and power of a prince.”
“What!” Victor exclaimed. He stared at the simple ring on his finger. “But that is absurd.”
“The saving of a life is nothing resembling absurd,” Shahzad said sharply. “And if my brother gave you his ring, I trust he had all the reason in the world to do so. But enough, here are the training grounds.” Shahzad started to say more when a well-dressed servant approached, speaking quietly in words Victor couldn’t understand. Shahzad frowned and looked apologetically at Victor. “If you will pardon me but a moment, there is a matter to which I must attend.”
“Of course.” Victor smiled and bowed his head. “I will be fine.”
Shahzad nodded and let the servant lead him away. Victor’s smile faltered as the prince vanished, and he looked awkwardly at the men who had ceased practicing to examine the stranger in their midst.
“You are a soldier, yes?” A man with short, blue-black hair spoke up from the fair end of the practice floor. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, about Victor’s own twenty-four, and carried himself with a confidence that spoke of his abilities with the sword he carried. As he approached Victor, the crowd of men left the floor and crowded along the sides. “A Knight?”
“Yes, I am.” Victor nodded politely, disconcerted when the man bowed to him.
“My name is Jafar. Would you like to spar with us?”
Victor reluctantly shook his head. “I am afraid I did not bring my weapon with me today.”
“Do you know how to use our swords?” Jafar held out his own, and Victor recognized the long, curved blade from a collection in the castle armory.
He shook his head. “Only minimally. I prefer to use my own style of long sword, generally.”
“Well, it will only be a friendly match. If you are somewhat familiar, that will suffice. Would you like to try? Until his Highness returns?”
Victor hesitated a moment longer, but at last nodded. He was seldom invited to spar back home, unless it was in a situation where his fellows could act unfairly or a joust, where they had no choice but to fight him – and lose. “If you do not mind that my skill is not at its best.”
“Of course not. As I said,” Jafar smiled pleasantly, “it is only for fun. We owe you much for saving Prince Amir.”
Victor pinked, still so uncomfortable with the fuss that was made over his clumsy rescue – and failed, really, because he had not kept Amir from being poisoned. Everyone seemed to be overlooking that part.
“Here,” Jafar’s olive green eyes held a spark of mischief as he presented a sword brought to him by another soldier. It was a beautiful piece, the hilt an intricate ivy pattern, a short green tassel trailing from the end. “I think this one will suit you.”
With misgivings about the whole affair, Victor accepted the sword and followed Jafar onto the sparring floor. The eastern blade felt strange in his hands, so used to holding the much large long swords favored by the Northern Knights. It was Bran who insisted his knights learn how to use all manner of weaponry and Victor remembered liking the thin, curved sword used by the East – but Trey had always used a long sword, as did the rest of the knights, and so that was what he went with for his regular weapon.
No doubt he would find himself flat on his back mere seconds into the match – but he would enjoy those few seconds. Recalling what little he remembered of fighting with the sword, Victor took a defensive stance. Somewhere off to the side, someone called a word he did not understand but which he took to mean ‘Begin!’ because in the next heartbeat Jafar was charging him, sword arching down toward Victor’s unprotected left side.
Steel rang against steel as Victor managed to block the swing, twisting away and shoving Jafar’s sword back, lifting his once more in defense, and the duel began in earnest. The longer Victor lasted, the more enthused he grew, until he realized that a few of the cheers from the spectators were intended for him. He managed a laugh as he threw off another of Jafar’s lunges and with a grin moved from defense into attack. A jarring upswing sent the soldier reeling back, momentarily off balance. Victor moved in to finish, when Jafar suddenly reasserted his balance and held up a hand with a piece of paper clutched between two fingers, speaking a single foreign word – the piece of paper vanished, the whole scene taking less than a second, and Victor’s eyes went wide as he realized the man had cast a fire spell.
Reflexively his hands went to the pouch he had fastened to his pants, just visible beneath the split in the long tunic. His fingers curled around the fine powder and he threw it toward the fire. “Out!” he shouted, and the mist-fine powder shimmered, seeming to catch and dissolve the fire right before it could reach its target.
Victor dropped to one knee, panting heavily, heart racing. He started to grin at Jafar – but the man was not looking at him, but past him, and Victor realized the entire room had gotten far too quiet.
In the next second the quiet was shattered by what was no doubt a great deal of profanity and threats of violence. Shahzad’s fist sent Jafar reeling back, still speaking in an angry rush. Jafar attempted to defend himself, but Victor could see his words had little effect. Shahzad shoved him into the nearest wall, shaking the soldier by the scruff of his neck.
“Shahzad!” Victor stood and rushed over. “Please – everything is fine.”
“No, everything is not fine.” Shahzad switched languages, still furious. He did not release his grip on the unfortunate Jafar. “Magic is not used in friendly duels, for practical jokes or otherwise.”
Victor felt something inside him sink, to hear it really had been nothing more than a prank against a hapless foreigner. He should have trusted his initial doubts, rather than humiliate himself and get Jafar in trouble. “Please. There was no harm done and until now I had been enjoying myself.” He thrust his sword into Shahzad’s startled arms and turned to nod politely at Jafar. “Thank you for the duel. I hope I provided some amusement.” Without another word he turned and left the training grounds, shoulders stiff and head high. If his own comrades could not break him, he would be damned if he let these men affect him.
“Victor!” Shahzad called after him, and Victor winced as he heard a smacking sound that no doubt would leave Jafar reeling for a good day or three. Exotic-sounding curses caught up with him first, followed by Shahzad pulling hard on his arm. “Please, stop.” Shahzad’s fingers touched his chin for a moment, before he withdrew them hastily, as if realizing he was crossing lines. “Forgive me.”
“And I,” Jafar interrupted quietly from behind them. His right eye was already swelling from where Shahzad had punched him. “I did not invite you to duel to mock you. It was an honest invitation. I used magic because I got carried away – I would never have let the spell hurt you, Lord Victor. Please accept my humble apologies.” He bowed low to Victor, then again to Shahzad. “Highness, I am truly sorry.”
“It is over,” Shahzad said with a sigh. “I am sorry I let my temper control me. I was carried away in my concern.” He frowned suddenly. “Though that reminds me – what was that you did? I have never seen such a thing, and did not expect it from a foreigner. Your magic is quite different, or so I was always led to believe.”
Victor looked embarrassed. “I am not a proper sage, according to Northern magic. It is simply that I was raised by two especially powerful sages, and influenced by a third at the castle. Dunstan, one of my caretakers, surmises that I sort of ‘absorbed’ it by association. I cannot cast spells or anything, but the powder Dunstan makes seems to…bend to my will.”
Jafar and Shahzad exchanged a look. “Could you show us again?” Shahzad asked politely, though he clearly was burning with curiosity.
“Ah – yes. I suppose. What would you like me to do?”
“Whatever is easiest,” Shahzad replied, smiling.
Victor nodded, not sure how to explain that one spell was not easier or more difficult than another. He regarded Jafar thoughtfully, and took a bit of the powder from his pouch, rubbing it in his hand until it covered his fingers much like chalk. “Pardon me,” he said softly, shyly, reaching up to wipe it across the bruises around Jafar’s right eye. “Heal,” he said quietly…and slowly the bruises began to fade. Though they didn’t fade entirely, the worst of them vanished in mere minutes.
“Amazing,” Shahzad said, shaking his head in bemusement. “A Northerner who managed somehow to learn Eastern magic.” He tilted his head, looking intently at Victor. “You are…intriguing.”
Victor turned red, looking away. “I am nothing special.”
Shahzad said nothing, merely held out the sword which Victor had thrust at him. “Keep this. I think perhaps you will get more use out of it than Amir ever did.” Ignoring Victor’s attempts at protest, he motioned to Jafar. “Take this to his room.” Turning to Victor, Shahzad gently grasped his arm and led him away. “Come, there is something else I want to show you. I was…saving the best for last.”
“Oh…all right.” Victor allowed himself to be led along, down first one long hallway and then another. Eventually they wound up outside, well away from the palace proper, on the edge of a wide cliff overlooking a lush green valley down below. “Amazing,” Victor breathed. “It is beautiful.”
Shahzad smiled, pleased, but his words were prevented by the piercing cry of a hawk. Victor looked up, surprised to hear a hawk that was not his own so close. “Oh…” he stared in awe. “He is breathtaking.”
Above them, circling ever closer, was a hawk with pitch black feathers. Several minute later he alighted on Shahzad’s arm.
“He does not hurt you,” Victor observed.
“No,” Shahzad stroked the hawk’s chest. “Much like your queen, Midnight was not broken or tamed. We helped each other out of a bind several years ago, and have been comrades ever since.”
Victor stepped slowly closer, reaching up to present his fingers to the fierce looking hawk. The hawk examined them curiously, then began to nip at them much Luna often did.
“That is not something he has ever done with me,” Shahzad said, looking amused. He bit back whatever else he might have said, turning to look out over the valley far below. “We have several hawks trained for hunting, which I will show you. But I thought you might appreciate Midnight more than most.”
“He is beautiful.”
Shahzad spoke softly to his hawk in the strange, lilting language that Victor desperately wished he understood. “Hold out your arm,” Shahzad said a moment later.
Victor obeyed and a moment later Midnight was on his arm, reaching out to nip first at his fingers and then at a stray lock of Victor’s hair. Shahzad laughed heartily and despite his burning cheeks Victor could not resist laughing either. “Enough, Midnight. I think perhaps you still have energy which needs worked out.” Moving closer to the edge of the cliff, Victor let the hawk launch from his arm. “Powerful. Much fiercer than Luna.”
“Yet I sense Luna could very much hold her own if she felt like it.” Shahzad watched his bird a moment longer, then turned back to Victor. “I also brought you out here to discuss your hostage situation.”
“Oh?” Victor sobered. “Is something wrong?”
“Not at all. We have merely refined the plan. And I would have included you, but the less you know the more authentic you will seem.” Shahzad winked. “To start – you are not aware you are a hostage. Neither is Amir. You are both unwitting pawns in a cruel game between the North and the East.”
Victor stifled a laugh. “That is rather cruel of you to do to us.”
“Yes, but these things must be done in the interest of acquiring power, stamping down the enemy…something along those lines.” He held out his arm. “Now come, hostage, and we shall have an early supper with my father. He refuses to believe I have been behaving myself all day.”
“I do not think I quite understand this penchant everyone believes you have for misbehaving.”
Shahzad smiled in a way Victor did not quite understand, but said nothing to explain. Instead he began regaling Victor with legends and stories of his country, interspersed with anecdotes about his family.
Victor woke smiling, but after a few minutes it faded into an uncertain frown. Outside it was still quite early; it looked as though it was still dark. But whatever had woken him, he would not be going back to sleep.
It was just as well – this early he would have some time alone to think. With daylight came a million distractions that made it all too easy to shove his thoughts aside.
Thoughts of staying in the East. Only a month had he been here and it felt as though he could stay forever. Thoughts of Shahzad. For all that he had been certain he was merely infatuated with the prince, he was slowly being forced to admit that it was nothing so simple. And Victor had no idea how to deal with that. When the problems with the West were resolved, his time as an emissary would end. He would return home, to his duties as a Northern Knight and Shahzad would still be an Eastern Prince. Not someone he was likely to see again.
Climbing from his bed, Victor dressed rapidly – he would never get used to having others dress him, it was just absurd – in a dark grey tunic and white pants, then slipped on his ankle boots and quietly left his room. He moved slowly, silently through the maze of hallways and rooms, nodding occasionally to the guards stationed intermittently throughout the palace. They had long grown used to seeing their “hostage” wander about at earlier hours and did nothing more than bow.
Eventually he reached the cliff, and released a long, slow breath. Perhaps it would be best not to think about it – he managed just fine when he avoided the unhappy thoughts. Best simply to focus on each day, and enjoy what he could get, and ensure he had thousands of memories to relive when he returned North.
He looked up at the cry of a hawk, barely able to see Midnight against the dark gray morning sky. Smiling, Victor stepped forward as the hawk began to spiral down. Too late he heard the rustle of feet on grass, and had half-turned to see who else would be out so early, when two hands shoved hard at his back, sending Victor tripping, tumbling forward—
–And over the edge of the cliff. Rocks bit sharply into his side and back before he managed to grab a hold of jutting rocks, arms jarring painfully as they took his weight, barely holding on. Distantly he noted Midnight was screaming, and hoped he was all right, but his immediate concern was his own life. Pale-faced and shaking, Victor scrambled for purchase with his feet, willing his hands to stop trembling before he sent himself the rest of the way down. He clung to the rock face, breaths ragged, and closed his eyes, willing himself to calm down.
It was not working. Victor took a slow, deep breath, focusing on the fact that he was not falling, that he had a chance of living.
He looked up, and felt a moment of relief to see he had not fallen quite as far as he had feared. If he could just make his limbs move, he might be able to climb up – except it was quite possible whoever had pushed him was still up there, on the off chance the deed had not been done. But no one had looked over the edge to check he had fallen, so perhaps they had fled. Then again, if they were up there…Victor doubted he would survive being shoved over a second time.
So best simply to wait until someone noticed his absence. But Shahzad was his most frequent companion and he did not generally wake before sunrise unless there was some special duty to attend. Jafar and the other soldiers he usually did not see until much later in the morning.
It looked as though he was going to be here for quite some time. Victor almost laughed as he realized this was why no one had checked that he was dead. Even if the initial attack had not killed him, the waiting would.
He forced himself to think of something besides how high up he was, the bite of the wind and how rapidly his hands and arms were tiring. Which was hard, because they were rather hard to ignore…but Shahzad was horribly distracting, even in his mind, and so Victor closed his eyes and thought of the prince.
It was working rather better than he thought if he was imagining he could hear Shahzad’s voice.
He looked up, too stunned to speak.
”Victor,” Shahzad repeated, and Victor felt better just listening to him speak. “Hang on, we will get you.” The prince vanished, and Victor could hear him snapping orders. A moment later three men appeared, lowering a rope while the prince supervised, switching between orders and talking to Victor.
He did not think his hand would let go of the rock, so tightly was he clinging to it. But worse than even falling would be for Shahzad to see him acting like a coward. Slowly, shaking the whole time, Victor managed to take the rope. He held on for dear life, barely thinking to use his feet to keep himself from smashing against the cliff face. It seemed ages before he could smell the grass, and barely had he touched ground than he was held close against a warm, bare chest. If he had not still been shaking with fear and relief, Victor had no doubt he would be six shades of red and falling over himself to get away.
All right, falling was a bad word.
“Are you all right?”
“Y-yes.” Victor made himself sit up, though he could not quite bring himself to stand. He looked at Shahzad, then looked quickly away. Later the image of Shahzad bare-chested with his hair loose and messy would drive him insane. “I am fine. I apologize for waking everyone.”
“Ridiculous. What happened?”
The reality of what had occurred finally slammed into him, and Victor looked back up at Shahzad. “Somebody pushed me.”
Shahzad swore, as the men around him first went dead silent and then exploded into discussion. The prince silenced them with a motion, rising to his feet and forcing Victor up beside him. “Close off the palace grounds. Look for a man with a ruined face – it will be covered in scratches and gashes. Find him now!” The soldiers dispersed. Shahzad grasped Victor’s arm. “Come, I will take you back to your room and set a guard to watch you.”
“I do not need someone to watch me,” Victor protested, humiliated.
“Someone just tried to kill you,” Shahzad replied, and his tone said the matter was over. “And they would have succeeded, I think, if Midnight had not attacked him and then come for me. I wondered why he woke me with bloodied talons.”
Victor frowned. “But why? Killing me would do no good.”
“But it would do a great deal of harm. Come, we will speak in your chambers. Not here.”
He had nearly died. At the moment the very last thing his ruined nerves needed was a half-naked Shahzad in his room. What was it Dunstan was always saying? When you least needed snow, you were guaranteed a blizzard? That sounded about right.
Shahzad paused long enough to speak with the Captain of the Guard who came racing up. A few minutes later they were in Victor’s room, and Victor found himself pressed into his bed. “Rest.” A knock at the door prevented Victor’s protests – but the visitor turned out to be a servant bearing clothes, so Victor let it slide.
And he was feeling rather tired, now that the fear was easing from his system. “Why would someone try to kill me?” He watched sleepily as Shahzad drew on a black tunic, the clasps and trim done in silver. The prince looked strange in such stark clothing, when Victor was used to seeing him wear bright colors. But he was more beautiful than ever, not least of all because his hair was still unbound. It was almost enough to keep his sudden sleepiness at bay.
“Perhaps for the same reason they tried to kill my brother?” Shahzad frowned and began to pull his hair back, settling for tying it back with a ribbon rather than bother to braid it. “Something strange is going on here – for all the West knows we are on the verge of a skirmish, if not outright war, with the North.”
Victor frowned and made himself sit up, stifling a yawn. “Perhaps they are trying to push us into war? But I still do not see the ultimate purpose – the North and West have been on the outs for years. It would have come as no surprise if they had attacked us openly – we have been expecting such a move for years. All this secrecy and attempted misunderstandings make no sense at all.”
“I wonder…” Shahzad murmured to himself. “Rest. Do not leave this room unless I or Jafar accompany you.”
Victor shook his head angrily. “I do not need to be treated like a child, kept in my room unless I’ve a nanny along.”
“You would rather I write to your king informing him of your demise?”
“I know how to look after myself.”
“Better not to take the chance. Remain here. I will be back shortly.” Shahzad strode across the room and drew shut the doors to the balcony that until that moment Victor had not even noticed. It made the room depressingly dark. Shahzad moved to stand before him and pressed him back down on the bed. “Rest.” Without another word, Shahzad turned and left.
He woke with a start some time later, looking up through sleep-fogged eyes at Shahzad, noting distantly that he had finally had his hair braided. Next he noticed the strange, tight expression on the prince’s face, which forced the last of the sleepiness from him. “Is something wrong? Shahzad?”
The prince seemed to recall himself from whatever thoughts had taken him. “Everything is fine. I believe we have, at last, sorted out the strange game the West is attempting to play.”
“Ah,” Victor said slowly, making himself get up. “That is good to hear.”
Shahzad frowned suddenly. “You were cut by the rocks. I should have summoned a healer before, forgive me.”
“What?” Victor asked, confused. He sought out the scrapes on his left side, the few scratches on his hand. “Only a few minor injuries. I can tend to them myself.”
“As you wish,” Shahzad conceded reluctantly.
“Anyway – what have you finally figured out?”
Shahzad moved to the balcony and once more opened the doors – Victor was chagrined to see that he had slept into early evening. He fetched his pouch and set about healing the worst of his injuries while the prince spoke. “A few years ago the Southern Queen’s Regent contacted us about a problem. We were told that they had discovered a certain plant was being smuggled into their country and was causing a great deal of trouble. The plant in question is only grown here, and it can indeed be quite deadly if it not properly handled. We of course were horrified and offered our full cooperation in catching the culprits. After three years of investigating and baiting traps, we succeeded.” Shahzad sat down on a large cushion. “The matter was concluded and we have kept a closer watch on such matters ever sense. For most of us, the affair was over. But my brother continued to correspond with the Regent. They have, through their letters, grown quite close.” Shahzad smiled. “And my father tends to spoil his children, so after making him beg for a bit, he granted Amir permission to go and visit his dear Regent.”
“I think I know what happened next,” Victor said slowly. “But I still do not see where the West comes into this.”
Shahzad grinned, no small amount of mischief in it. “Ah, but let me elaborate. My brother did not merely beg and plead for the chance to visit. He and my father have always been hopeless romantics. My brother has long professed to be in love with his unseen Regent and declared every intention of marrying her.”
Victor blinked. “Quite the risk.”
“You have not seen Amir at his best,” Shahzad said dryly. “He misbehaves as much as I. It is only the way in which we misbehave that differs. And my father really has no right to criticize, as he himself was adopted into the royal family and his own wife was a former dancing girl. Hmm…I am not quite certain what you would call such girls in the North.”
“I think I understand,” Victor said hastily.
“Yes,” Shahzad said. “Amir is almost exactly like my father; I always took more after my mother.”
Victor frowned. “Perhaps I am dense, but I still do not see where all this is going.”
“We have been considering ending our isolation for some years; we merely have been deliberating the best way to go about it. The problem with the smugglers was a step in the right direction and we kept relations with the South open. But my brother running off to propose marriage is something else altogether. If the marriage goes through, a tie between an Eastern prince and the Southern Regent means our isolation is effectively over – and establishes quite a solid alliance with the South.”
Comprehension flooded Victor’s face. “And the South has a strong relationship with the North. Meaning that almost by default you would develop alliances with the North, effectively leaving the West outnumbered three to one.”
Shahzad nodded. “So the West probably hoped to shatter any chance of an alliance between the North and East, effectively ruining any chance the East had of ever getting along with the South. In addition to that, tensions would run high between the North and South for the murder of someone they considered a very special guest. Had you not saved Amir that night, it would have taken months, if not years, for things to be properly sorted out. Your attempted murder this morning was no doubt an effort to completely shatter any chance of reconciliation – which on the positive side means they believe we are not getting along.”
Victor shook his head in amazement. “And to think I only happened to be out there because I had nothing to wear to a dance.”
Chuckling, Shahzad stood. “You will have to elaborate on that sometime. But for now, you should eat. I will have food sent up. I would join you but I am afraid there are duties to which I must attend.”
“Wait—whatever happened to the man who tried to kill me?”
“We found him,” Shahzad said shortly, and in his voice it was perfectly clear what happened when they found him. “He had nothing useful to tell us.” Shahzad paused at the door, expression unreadable. “Though we are still working out the details, I believe in a week’s time matters will conclude and you will be able to return home. Despite this morning’s events, I hope you have enjoyed your stay.”
“I have,” Victor said quietly. He looked up to say more, but Shahzad was gone.
“Oh, no.” Victor stood up, almost tripping over the deep cushion that served as a seat, and held up his hands to ward off the women that he swore were stalking toward him, giggling evilly behind their hands and the bundles in their arms. “Get away from me!”
But his words fell on deaf ears and he rapidly found himself under attack, stripped and redressed, twisted and tugged, hair pulled and yanked until at last they backed away looking extremely smug and pleased. Victor thought it best not to tell them they really were as crazy as Shahzad claimed. Giggling behind the fans they pulled from their sleeves, the women bowed low and departed.
Victor made faces at their backs and then sought out a mirror to see what they had done to him this time. He had the feeling, sometimes, that they regarded him as a foreign doll. Perhaps it amused them to dress someone who did not have gold skin and dark hair.
They definitely favored putting him in blues – this newest one much lighter than the dark shades he was usually forced into. It was a soft color, a weird mix of ocean and sky. His hair they had trimmed a couple of days ago, so the unruly curls were as tamed as they would ever be, brighter than ever against the blue robe. High on his right ear they had put a small, copper cuff. Matching bracelets, nothing more than linked square plates of copper, were at each wrist and they had even managed to get several rings onto his fingers, a mixture of plain copper bands and fancier rings set with emeralds or sapphires.
At least they had left him boots to put on and not those ridiculous slippers to which he could not grow accustomed. Victor felt ridiculous, like a child playing dress up, but it would somehow feel stranger to don his old clothes. Not that he had seen a sign of them since his arrival. Near his boots they had left a sword belt and the sword he had been given the day he had first dueled with Jafar. For whatever reason, everyone seemed insistent that he keep it. Hopefully Amir wouldn’t mind too much.
Victor sighed softly, and closed his eyes, willing away unhappy thoughts and making himself remember all the things he had missed while being in the East. And there was much he had missed – his fathers, running through the fields with Luna high above, speaking with Topaz and Bran, his favorite foods…
…But he knew that as much as he missed all those things and more besides, he did not miss them half so much as he would miss all he had seen and enjoyed during his stay. He opened his eyes and made himself move, pack those few things he had to take back, whatever kept him from thinking of the prince that in five days he would most likely never see again.
“Ready to go?” Shahzad said, appearing almost as if by thought.
Victor nodded. “Yes.” He followed Shahzad from the room and along the halls toward the courtyard where the horses waited. Save for the soldier who would be their escort, no others were around. Victor ignored the hurt he felt that none had come to bid him farewell. Perhaps he was the only one who would miss his presence here.
Shoving the thoughts aside, knowing he was overreacting to everything because of his foul mood, Victor followed Shahzad and the soldiers out and away.
The valley in which the three countries had arranged for their representatives to meet was small, secluded and hard to get to. It was also much further from the West than any other country. All around them the trees were beginning to lose their leaves, a bite in the air that had not been present when Victor first traveled east.
“Trey!” Victor smiled and could not resist hailing his father, who waved back and strode forward to greet him as soon as they had all dismounted. “I have missed you.”
“And I you,” Trey embraced him. “But you seem to be doing quite well for yourself. Dunstan will be pleased to hear you are taking after him rather than me and getting into scrapes.”
Victor grinned. “I was hoping to see you, but I was not sure they could get you away from Bellewood long enough.”
“Enough of that,” Trey said gruffly, gray eyes flashing with amusement. He cast his eyes over the dark-skinned men standing beside and behind Victor. They settled on the prince. “You must be Prince Shahzad.” He smiled. “If you will return our hostage,” he motioned behind him. “We will attempt to return yours. But I think perhaps you might have a challenger.”
Shahzad smirked as his brother approached, nodding politely to the woman who walked beside him. She was tall and stately, striking rather than pretty. Her skin was pale, lips a dark pink and eyes a smoky green. Her hair, bright red, was neatly plaited and wrapped around the back of her head. One pale hand was clasped in Amir’s. “So you are the Regent about which I have heard so much. The Lady Caitlyn, yes?” Shahzad smiled. “You can have him.”
“I missed you too, dear brother.” Amir said dryly, fighting a laugh. He looked at Victor. “I see you managed to survive your stay. I hope Shahzad did not make life too difficult for you.” Amir looked back at his brother. “I hear strange rumors of your actually behaving. Could they possibly be true?”
Shahzad muttered something only his brother and the Eastern soldiers could understand, though what little Victor caught made him think it was rather a colorful threat. “To attend to business, has anyone heard a reply from the West?”
Trey and Caitlyn shook their heads. Caitlyn seemed amused. “It would seem that we have driven the West into isolation, at least for a time. Perhaps things will change when that fat oaf they call a king retires or is otherwise removed from the throne.”
“Indeed. So far as relations with the South go – am I welcoming a new sister and future queen, or am I thanking you for taking Amir away and hoping it will take you a while to realize your mistake?”
Amir ignored him, and the way his betrothed laughed. “Despite appearances, you and I both know, little brother, that you are far more suited to the throne than I. Do not be so impertinent that I alter my decision to go South with Caitlyn.”
“I am glad to see you have completely recovered from the poisoning you received,” Shahzad replied. Around them the others laughed, especially the Eastern soldiers who were long used to seeing the brothers banter.
All except Victor, who was finding it harder and harder to laugh about anything as the reality of his leaving began to set in. Trey frowned at him, gray eyes flickering silver in concern for the boy he had years ago adopted as his own son. Victor shook his head and looked at Shahzad, who was still bickering with his brother, relieved and sad all at once when Trey nodded in understanding.
Shahzad turned from his brother. “I was told your lover is fond of roses,” he said to Trey, who nodded in surprise. Shahzad motioned a soldier forward and took from him several carefully prepared cuttings. “Then accept these, please. As a gift. There are other gifts, but they have been packed for travel to your home, which I was told is quite some distance from here.”
“Thank you. Dunstan will adore them. But why are you giving us gifts?”
“Attempting to behave,” Shahzad said, sparing a scathing look for his brother, who had begun snickering. “I am under strict orders from my father to do so until all matters are conclusively settled. He has also sent along gifts for your King, for we owe the North a great debt.”
Trey smiled, suddenly pleased. “Relations with the South remain strong, we have established a bond with the East – I would say the North considers all matter conclusively settled.”
Caitlyn nodded. “The South too considers all matters dealt with to our full satisfaction. And all who wish to attend are cordially invited to our wedding.” She smiled at Amir, who lifted her hand to kiss the back of it.
“Finally,” Shahzad said, and Victor watched in confusion as Shahzad approached him, took his left hand and all but ripped Amir’s ring from it. Shahzad barely glanced at his brother as he threw the ring at him, and Victor wondered why Amir laughed.
But in the next moment Amir and everyone else was driven out of his head, as Shahzad hauled Victor close and kissed him like a starving man presented with a royal feast. Distantly Victor heard others laughing and jesting, but the majority of his focus was on the prince, who tasted spicy and sweet, like everything Eastern Victor had fallen in love with during his stay. “What are you doing?” he asked when Shahzad finally let him breathe.
“Misbehaving,” Shahzad said against his mouth, speaking so only Victor could hear. “Would it be presumptuous to ask that you stay? With me?” And though his face remained as composed as it ever was, Victor could see the uncertainty in his eyes.
“There’s nothing I want more,” Victor said.
Shahzad leaned in to kiss him again, chuckling at the cheers that surrounded them and flooded the valley.