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copyright 2012 Court Ellyn

BLURB:

Humanity has chosen to forget its war-torn past, but ancient powers rise, hungry for revenge.

In a world where magic is forbidden, awkward, scholarly Kieryn discovers he is a vessel for the powers that have lain dormant in his family for centuries. While his family marches to war, Kieryn must turn his back on those he loves and muster the courage to uncover his family's past and his gift with magic, though his efforts may cost him his sanity and his soul.

On a far-flung battlefield, Kieryn's brother, Kelyn, joins the fight between the warring Falcon Kings. While seeking to distinguish himself with the sword, he must wrestle with decisions that threaten his family's honor and the lives of thousands.

Meanwhile, hidden from human eyes, deep inside the magical Veil, Lothiar remembers that Kieryn's and Kelyn's ancestors were not the heroes sung in human legend, but murderers who tried to annihilate an entire race. Lothiar decides it's time to stop hiding in the shadows and remind humanity of its age-old crimes.

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BLOOD OF THE FALCON

Chapter 1

Preparations were nearly complete. Ilswythe Castle rested fitfully, anticipating the arrival of hundreds of guests. Kieryn dreaded it. He dreaded the coming of spring every year. The crowds and the noise, the politics and the smiling façade he was expected to wear, made him wish he were an ant, so he could crawl into a hole in the ground. But because the lord of the house was his father, Kieryn had to play along.

Trying to forget the chaos bearing down on him, he resorted to his usual distraction. Flipping through a dog-eared copy of Tales From the Green, he settled on "The Dark Witch of Adreddán." The cracked shade of his bedside lamp emitted black smoke like ghosts of the past. His mother warned him he would ruin his eyes reading into the wee hours of the night. His father said he shouldn't read these books at all. They were for children, nonsense, harmful. A couple of Kieryn's favorites had even been outlawed, because they made heroes of elves and wielders of magic. Some books, he had learned, should not be read in the daylight.

Outside his window, a storm raged. Reports of thunder might be the lightning crackling from the Witch's fingertips or the roar of fire spewing from her mouth, as she devastated the hosts of Áshelon. At eighteen, Kieryn should've outgrown his fascination for these childish fancies. But legends of elven ladies and sorcerous foes drew him as indelibly as the horizon draws the sun, and he wondered how much truth lay behind a legend's veil. Truths he was not supposed to see.

The raising of the portcullis rattled him out of the story. What was the hour, for the Goddess' sake? He slid the book under his bed and peered out into the storm. The moonless dark and the sheets of rain played tricks on his eyes. Windblown torches in each of the towers illumined sentries running along the ramparts. They gathered at the gatehouse, where Captain Maegeth barked orders, then hurried into the courtyard, slinging her sword belt around her waist. The rain plastered her black hair to her forehead, and in a spark of lightning, Kieryn read the bewilderment on her face. She ran up the steps of the keep and hauled open the bronze doors. The floor under Kieryn's feet shuddered as she shut them again.

Three riders galloped through the gate and reined in among the stable-hands who emerged reluctantly from the livery and their warm beds of hay. Soldiers of the garrison ran to aid them, torches in hand, but one of the riders bellowed an order and every torch was tamped out in the standing puddles.

Kieryn's smoky lamp suddenly seemed as bright as the sun. He blew it out and hurried back to the window. The riders had dismounted; two of them helped the third up the steps and into the keep. When Kieryn needed the lightning most, it failed him; he couldn't distinguish the riders' faces, but he would've bet his entire library that before the torches had guttered out, he recognized a black horse among the three.

Three riders galloped through the gate and reined in among the grooms. One of the riders bellowed an order and every torch was tamped out in the standing puddles.

Kieryn's smoky lamp glowed as brightly as the sun. He blew it out and hurried back to the window. The riders had dismounted; two of them helped the third up the steps and into the keep. When Kieryn needed the lightning most, it proved treacherous; he couldn't distinguish the riders' faces, but he would've bet his entire library that before the torches had guttered out, he had recognized a black horse among the three.

Why would the king ride to Ilswythe two nights before he was expected?

The castle no longer slept. Voices slithered into Kieryn's suite. Doors closed nearby, more underfoot. Kieryn pressed an ear to his door. Servants' bare feet pattered quickly past. Confusion and questions colored the sounds of their voices. Peering from his vestibule, Kieryn found the head steward conferring with the Lord Keth. Kieryn's father was tying on a heavy robe. Behind his snow-flecked beard, his face creased with worry and sudden wakefulness.

The servants flocked to the steward for orders. Kieryn slid into the corridor behind them, trying to be inconspicuous. Lord Keth told them, "Everything is in hand. Go back to your rooms and stay there." Baffled, the servants bowed a hesitant departure and pattered back the way they'd come, murmuring uneasily.

Their flight left Kieryn exposed. He straightened his shoulders. "Da?"

A rumpled linen shirt and worn riding leathers announced to Keth which of his twin sons addressed him from the dark. His frown deepened. "Go back to bed, Kieryn."

"But--"

"For once, do as I tell you. Yorin," he called to the steward, "turn up your lamp, I'll follow you. Hurry now and say nothing . . ." Keth's whisper echoed away between the gray stone walls. Though he had ordered Yorin to take the lead, Keth's longer stride hastened him ahead of the steward before they reached the stairwell.

Kieryn remained in the corridor, swallowing his father's disregard as though it were shards of glass, a food all too common in his mouth. How could he return to bed with his questions unanswered?

If Da hesitated to share his secret with Kieryn, perhaps he would share it with Kelyn.

Though the night was half over, a fire blazed in Kelyn's hearth as if newly made. The bedchamber sweltered, and Kelyn had thrown aside his blankets. Two wine glasses winked from the bedside table, but Kelyn slept alone. His infatuation with the household maids never failed to bring a blush to Kieryn's face. He gave his twin's shoulder a shake. Kelyn groaned, rolled over onto his belly and burrowed his head under a pillow. No time for this. Kieryn reared back the flat of his hand and cracked it over Kelyn's naked arse. He surged from under the pillow, cursing to bring down the moons. He recognized his twin looming over him, and struck by something resembling conscience, he glanced across the bed and over at the hearth.

"Don't worry, she's gone," Kieryn said. "And don't tell me who she was this time, I don't want to know."

Kelyn chuckled. "Whoever she was, she can make a hell of a fire."

"I don't want to know that either." Kieryn made for the window. The portcullis had been lowered, but twice the usual number of sentries walked the parapets.

Kelyn came to his senses and shouted, "You Mother-loving--! It's the middle of the night. What are you--?"

"Something's wrong." Kieryn found his brother's robe slung over a chair and tossed it to him. "C'mon!"

Kelyn glared desultorily at the robe wadded up at his feet. He reached for the wine glass instead.

"Goddess, Kelyn! There were riders. One rode a black horse."

Kelyn took his time savoring the red wine like a jeweler admires the fire deep within a ruby. Then he said, "You've lost your wits. Rhorek isn't due till the day after tomorrow. Why would he leave his entourage behind? And on a soggy cold night like this?"

"The boy can use adjectives," Kieryn groused. "Get up!"

Kelyn finished off the wine. "It was probably crofters bringing the last of the supplies for the Assembly."

"I'd like to know what crofter can afford a horse like that -- and dare ride a black one. Besides, they didn't bring anything with them."

"Messengers, then."

"Willing to bet your manhood on it?"

Kelyn threw the wine glass at him and reached for the robe.

Long northern winters infected the keep's lower floors with a clammy chill, and Kelyn complained of his bare toes. Though he had forgotten footwear, he had wasted precious time washing his face and combing his hair. Kieryn knew better than to rush him, though his teeth had ached with the waiting; Kelyn never left his rooms looking mussed from sleep or whatever else he'd been doing in bed. The twins crept down the back way, through the library, down to the ledger vaults, past Etivva's rooms and her shrine to the Mother-Father, and into the corridor lined with spare suites. In preparation for the annual Assembly, the household had scrubbed and aired each of the chambers, and the doors stood open to welcome the influx of highborns who were scheduled to arrive with the king.

The door to the suite customarily reserved for His Majesty, however, was shut. A knight in black velvet and shiny shoulder-plates stood before the door. A young squire hovered nearby awaiting his next order.

Kieryn elbowed his brother. "You see, I told you. That's one of the Falcon Guard."

Kelyn couldn't argue with the silver falcon blazoned across the knight's surcoat, nor the mud caked on the tall black boots. "What in the Abyss do you expect me to do?" Though they had hidden themselves in the vestibule of a distant suite, their whispers ricocheted down the corridor like ill-aimed arrows. The Falcon's helmet turned their direction. A gloved hand reached for a sword hilt.

Kieryn nudged his brother. "Go find out what's going on-before we're cut to pieces in our own house."

"Poor Kieryn, afraid of a little sword."

The knight's voice took the wind out of Kelyn's mockery: "You there! Come out of the shadows."

Kelyn squinted at the shiny black helmet, the narrow knees below the surcoat, the sword belt cinched around a small waist. "Damned if that isn't a woman." He started into the light that spilled from the row of stained-glass lamps, but his approach might've appeared the bolder had he not dragged Kieryn alongside him. "We mean no harm," he announced, smiling with easy charm. "We come with the property, like the rats. Right, Laral?"

The squire crushed a laugh behind his hand. "You said that, m' lord."

The woman in the Falcon helmet came up short in good humor. Eyes like hard black stones pelted the twins, settled on Kelyn's grin which was becoming a bit smug, and her hand released the hilt of her sword.

"Got the king in there?" he asked.

The woman said nothing. She was no more than twenty-five, her mouth a stern angry line. Somehow that made her mouth all the prettier. Kieryn thought so, and Kelyn was wise not to say so. He redirected his strategy instead. "I heard Captain Jareg named a woman his ranking lieutenant. I suppose you're her."

"She," Kieryn whispered.

"I suppose you're she, then," Kelyn amended.

The woman's face barely flinched, and Kieryn suspected that inside that helmet she was contemplating their tasteful disposal. "Never mind, Kelyn, we're wasting our time--," he began, but Kelyn hadn't been dragged out of his sweet dreams for nothing.

"Laral," he said, "how about you be the lieutenant's mouth since she's forgotten how to use hers."

The squire was fourteen and small for his age. His big gray eyes darted uneasily between his foster-brothers and the Falcon with the blade. "I don't know anything," he implored, voice on the younger side of cracking. "Honest, I don't. They won't tell me either. Lady Alovi told me to stay close in case she needed anything and that's all." He glanced sidelong at the lieutenant and added, "Master Odran's in there though."

The lieutenant grit her teeth and took a half-step toward the boy. Laral backpedaled. "Well, he is!" he declared.

If the household physician tended to the king . . . hmm. No wonder Da had looked worried. "Listen, um," Kieryn said to the woman, "we're going now."

But Kelyn would have none of it. He leaned around the lieutenant and raised a fist to the door. The woman reacted as fast as a whiplash, barring his path; Kelyn went so still so abruptly that Kieryn feared she had cast some kind of enchantment on him. But that kind of thing happened only in stories.

Kelyn lowered an astonished sort of half-smile on her. The woman's jaw worked as she ground her teeth in a fury; high color fanned into her cheeks. Kelyn emitted a high-pitched grunt and stepped gingerly away from the door. Collecting every measure of his dignity, he readjusted the front of his robe and cast the woman a winning smile. Kieryn marveled at his brother's self-control, even his extraordinarily kind manners in the face of this woman's assault. Kelyn would call that grace. The epitome of fine cultured behavior. He pressed his hand to his heart and bowed his head. "Yes, lieutenant, we are going, my brother and I. Be so good as to give our regards to His Majesty."

Kieryn shoved him back the way they'd come. Stacks of yellow parchment and disintegrating leather binding lent the ledger room the stink of dust and centuries.

Kelyn started up the spiral stair with a chuckle. "Fond of a handful, that one."

Kieryn groaned and started up the spiral stair. When Kelyn's brain high-centered on the matter of woman flesh, he could be downright unbearable.

The next morning, Kieryn descended to the kitchens rather than wait for his breakfast to be brought up to him. As he'd expected, rumor had swept through the scullery like the gloamwater fever. While he washed down honeyed scones with buttermilk, he listened to Nelda, the head cook, bubble over with the latest information. In the space of a few hours, it seemed, King Rhorek had been poisoned, taken by a pox, thrown from his black Roreshan racer, stabbed in the back, and assailed by highwaymen who had managed to cut off his arm or disembowel him-Nelda wasn't sure which version she liked best. But two elements remained consistent with every telling: the king had been one of the riders who had arrived amid the storm, and his soul was about to make a beeline for the Light of the Mother-Father.

After breakfast, Kieryn crept into the corridor lined with guests' quarters but found the door to the king's suite open, the chambers empty, clean, and well-ordered, neither Falcon Guard nor king to be had. Last night's excitement might have been naught but a frenzied dream.

He tracked down Kelyn in the bailey and reported his findings. Blunt practice sword in hand, Kelyn sparred with young Laral and seemed disinterested in rumor and empty rooms. Though Kelyn was yet to be knighted, he had swung a blade nearly every day of his life and long ago had mastered the lessons his father could teach him. At Lord Keth's request, Kelyn reinforced his skill by prenticing the household squires.

Laral handled the practice sword well, using both blade and pommel to try for the advantage. His arms, however, were still too short and scrawny get past Kelyn's guard.

"Did you see anything after we left, Laral?" asked Kieryn.

"Nothing," the boy panted, face scrunched and red with effort. "Your mother sent me for linens . . . you know, the kind you wrap a broken arm in." His concentration began to suffer from Kieryn's intrusion, and Kelyn hooked his blade around Laral's and sent it flying.

"Tsk, tsk," said Kelyn.

Laral sucked a bruised knuckle and plucked his weapon out of the grass.

"What must a knight never do?"

"Lose his sword," recited Laral, abashed.

"What else must a knight never do?"

"Drop his guard." Laral dove to the attack, perhaps expecting Kelyn to have sacrificed readiness for instruction, but Kelyn parried his blade and dealt him a kick in the pants.

Around the sparring match, the castle grounds swarmed with servants and soldiers completing the preparations for the Assembly. Kieryn watched them with a highborn's detachment and a scholar's sensitivity. Yorin, the steward, supervised nimble youths on tall ladders as they swiped the stained-glass windows of the Great Hall for the second time. How Da had cursed Ana-Forah when the storm swept in last night to sully the spotless windows. Outside the stables, grooms sponged Lord Keth's horses and those of his garrison. Stable boys shoveled straw and manure and hauled it away in two-wheeled carts, as if Rhorek didn't know, and shouldn't be told, that horses shit. The falconer swept the mews' collection of feathers and droppings, and scattered fresh sawdust. Nelda's assistants chased hissing white geese who seemed wise to the fact that the goose who straggled would be the goose who graced a king's table. Captain Maegeth rode through the gate with spotted snow elk slung over a pair of mules. A fat farmer from Ilswythe Village delivered a crate of fat squealing piglets, another a wagon of sloshing ale barrels. Washer women at the well talked conspiratorially as they scrubbed spare sheets and table cloths, likely embellishing the rumors Kieryn had heard at breakfast.

"We could speak to Master Odran," he suggested.

"Done that," Kelyn said and shunted aside Laral's thrust. "He was as closed-mouthed as Lieutenant Lissah. I learned her name," he added, casting a wink in Kieryn's direction. Laral's pommel jabbed home and Kelyn doubled over with a whoof.

"Oh, sorry, m' lord," Laral said, habitual politeness intact despite his new array of bruises.

"You gonna apologize . . . to every Fieran sheep-thief, too?" asked Kelyn, gasping.

Kieryn chuckled. "You're having a run of bad luck, brother. Rudely molested by a woman and bested by a pupil."

"Just wait . . . till I catch my breath, scholar."

Kieryn laughed the louder, and Kelyn kicked grass clippings at him. The jibe was a safe one: Kelyn was confident in his ability to win any female who pleased his eye, and everyone was confident in his ability with a blade. He had bested every swordsman in Ilswythe's garrison, including Captain Maegeth, and many from garrisons across Aralorr and Evaronna. When it came to a contest of arms, Kieryn never wagered against his brother.

He tried to envy Kelyn's martial excellence -- and for a time had tried to achieve the same, to please their father more than to compete with Kelyn -- but Kieryn hadn't the slightest interest in war unless it raged across his history pages. A lack of martial acumen was considered an especially shameful shortcoming in the son of the Lord Keth, the king's War Commander for nearly twenty years. His 'shortcoming,' as even Kieryn deemed it, had driven a deep wedge between father and son.

Da had only to enter a room, and Kieryn's gut would tighten. At present, the Lord Keth stood atop the northern wall, bristling like a mad dog. He bellowed, "No, no, no, you sons of an elven whore!"

A hush spread across the bailey. Twins, servants, and soldiers gave him their undivided attention. Who had roused His Lordship's temper this time? He shouted at someone outside the walls. "I told you, you fools, the pavilion goes over here! Close to the wall. The sun won't shine on it here."

Relieved that their lord's wrath was aimed elsewhere, the household continued with its duties, though at a sharper pace. Kieryn sat hard on the freshly clipped lawn, enthusiasm gone. The knot in his belly refused to relax. "Every year, the same thing."

"He's not usually this short with the people," Kelyn argued, watching their father's stride lengthen and shorten, change direction and stop. Apparently the men charged with setting up the spectator's pavilion made the mistake of dragging the canvas up the hill, for Keth roared, "Tear it and I'll hang your hides from the battlements."

Laral's gray eyes widened. "Would he really?"

"No," Kelyn assured. "But I'll bet the threat got them moving."

"He's worried about the king?" asked the squire.

"Must be."

Despite Keth's unspoken fears, Kieryn failed to summon sympathy for his father. "This wouldn't happen if Rhorek held the Assembly at Bramoran. Da could tell him it's too much trouble."

"I'm surprised at you," Kelyn said. "You, the All-Knowing Historian, ought to appreciate tradition. The Assembly has been held at Ilswythe for Goddess knows how long."

"History, brother, is all about the breaking of tradition, and this tradition only gives Da an annual apoplexy."

"A what?"

"Never mind."

"Choke on your book words! If Rhorek held the Assembly someplace else, you'd have to leave your library behind."

Yes, to Kieryn the five-day-long Assembly was a tedious, uncomfortable affair, and as soon as the formalities were observed he was quick to retreat into his books. But Kelyn's threat didn't faze him. He leant back on his elbows. The spring sun heated the crown of his head deliciously. "Here's some more 'book words' for you. Bramoran boasts a library of prodigious proportion, which would amply suffice."

"Laral, does he ever make you feel stupid?"

Laral nodded.

"So you don't know what apox . . . apopel . . ."

"Apoplexy," Kieryn supplied.

". . . means either?"

"Afraid not, m' lord."

"Good," Kelyn said, reassured that he wasn't more ignorant than a thirteen-year-old, "then you're dismissed." He extended his practice sword, hilt first. "Polish them properly and put them away. Because a knight never neglects . . . ?"

"Cleanliness of weapon, armor, horse, and self. In that order, sir."

"Excellent. Go."

Laral battled his way to the armory, a sword in each hand and phantom foes to every side. The tradition of sending one's sons and daughters to be fostered as squires under another lord's roof was an old one, and one which Keth had adamantly broken concerning his own sons. The Lady Alovi had tried to convince him otherwise, hoping to send Kelyn, at least, to her brother at Wyramor, but Keth had argued, "That man married his cousin and has three daughters, not the best place to nurture my boys." Seeing the kind of youth Kelyn had grown into, Kieryn agreed that Da had chosen rightly; Kelyn had inflicted scandal enough upon his family without involving pretty highborn cousins. So when Alovi had run through the list of highborn houses, none of whom, for one reason or another, were appropriate caretakers of the War Commander's children, she'd given up the fight, and in the end had been only too happy to watch her sons grow up.

Laral finally won his way into the armory, and Kelyn asked his brother, "So what does 'apoplexy' mean?"

Kieryn turned his face to the sun and laughed. "Not gonna tell you."

Kelyn kicked him in the thigh. "You like to make me feel stupid."

"Whatever fits . . ." Kieryn swung a leg, hooked his brother's ankle and pulled his foot from under him. Kelyn staggered to the ground and stared agape.

"You prick of a cowardly elf."

Kieryn roared at that one, rocked himself to his feet, and lowered a hand. "If I'm an elf's prick, so are you."

Kelyn ignored the proffered hand, but sprang forward, flung his arms around his brother's waist and flung him back onto the lawn. The eighteen-year-olds looked more like eight-year-olds, a tangle of arms and legs, flying hair, laughter and squalls. Kieryn thought for one exhilarating moment that he'd pinned Kelyn down, but the latter twisted, and before Kieryn could shout 'surrender,' he found his mouth full of grass clippings.

"You yield to my might?" Kelyn demanded, pressing an arm into Kieryn's nape.

Kieryn was about to shout a whole-hearted 'Yes' when his left eye, the one without the grass in it, spotted the Lady Alovi approaching from the castle gardens. One dark, fire-and-ash-threaded braid hung maiden-like over her shoulder; a second hung down her back, swinging against her silk skirt. Her mouth was pinched tight, drawing on full cheeks.

"Mother's coming," Kieryn grunted, and the pressure of Kelyn's arm let up. They jumped to their feet and tried to brush away incriminating grass and wrinkles.

Alovi drew up before them, green eyes conducting a severe scrutiny. On the wall, the Lord Keth bellowed another round of curses. "You see the state your father is in?" she asked.

Kelyn snorted with repressed laughter. "Hear it, you mean."

Alovi's left eyebrow shot up, and Kelyn bit his lip. Though she was as petite and dainty as a butterfly, this woman didn't need a sword to command anyone. She brushed the clippings from her sons' shoulders and pulled it from their hair. Kieryn heated with a blush and glanced at the nearest servants. A scullion dragged a goose by the neck, and though she lowered her eyes, she was grinning.

"Mother, we're not little boys," he scolded.

"You behave like boys, I treat you like boys," she retorted, brushing off his back and giving him a sound slap on the rear. Kieryn's face might as well have been on fire, and Kelyn could no longer stifle his laughter.

Alovi grabbed her sons' elbows and pulled them close. "On a serious note, if you please. All is not well. Your father is especially on edge, so I must ask you not to contribute to the chaos. For his sake, hmm?"

"What happened last night?" asked Kieryn.

Alovi released them and folded her hands primly. "You were there?"

Kelyn replied, "The lieutenant wasn't exactly solicitous. How's that for a book word?"

Kieryn's congratulations were thin.

"What did she tell you?" their mother asked.

"Nothing," Kelyn said.

"It was the king, wasn't it?" asked Kieryn.

Alovi's stiff silence too closely resembled that of the lieutenant. "His Majesty paid us an unexpected call last night--"

"Mother!"

"He was well enough to ride out again early this morning. Likely most of his entourage never knew he was away. They'll arrive tomorrow as scheduled. Do we have an understanding?" The twins exchanged a glance but said nothing. Alovi took it for acquiescence. "Good. Then, Kelyn, start getting cleaned up for dinner. I know how long it takes you to primp. Kieryn, you need to help Etivva straighten the library. I popped my head in this morning, and you've not done as I asked. After dinner, your brother and I will help you plan your wardrobe."

Kieryn grimaced, opened his mouth--

"No arguments," she ordered. "I'm going to try to calm down your father. Wish me luck."

Kelyn glowered after her. "Everybody knows but us."

"Nobody knows but Mum and Da. And that's the way they want to keep it."

Sulking, the twins started for the keep. "Looks like Mother's not going to let you repeat last year's offense," Kelyn said.

"What'd I do?"

"How could you forget? At Opening Banquet you showed up in your white linen shirt and riding leathers. That's all you ever wear."

"What's comfortable works," Kieryn defended. "And I resent you and Mother always thinking you need to take care of me."

"Riding leathers, Kieryn?"

He glanced down his lanky height at the white linen shirt, now grass-stained, and brown riding leathers. Kelyn looked dashing, despite his morning exertions, in a form-fitting tunic of lightweight wool, dark blue and finely embroidered with gold thread. A matching silk ribbon tied his hair off his sweaty face. The twins' preferences in attire were only the more obvious of their differences. By now Kelyn's shoulders were broader from the weight of sword and shield, and in strong light, Kieryn's hair was a shade paler and shot with gold. His eyes were a dozen shades of blue, but Kelyn's irises were brightened by tawny sunbursts. Once upon a time, the Ilswythe twins had made use of their sameness to play pranks on their family, but soon enough their differences had become more important, for no boy likes being measured against another. Kelyn couldn't hide his love of the crowd, his need for the adoring smiles and flirtatious exchange, any more than Kieryn could suppress his desire for solitude and quiet reflection and food of words. Still, the twins found amusing the case of double-vision they seemed to inflict upon strangers.

They swung around the bulk of the Great Hall. Its ancient gray stones and stained-glass windows glistened anew in the morning sun, and Yorin ordered his underlings to return their washing accouterments to the storage rooms in the lower floors of the watchtowers. There, cook's assistants hurried up from grain stores and meat houses, and dodged the boys with swinging mops and awkward ladders.

As their mother had mandated, the twins adopted an air of remoteness from the general confusion. Settling on a topic that was unlikely to incite another contest of strength or wits, Kieryn commented, "Laral's improving. His father will be proud when he arrives." Lander of Tírandon would foster his sons under no one less than the War Commander himself. His oldest, Leshan, had successfully completed Keth's rigorous training and been sent home last fall. Keth expected him to return to Ilswythe among Rhorek's court, to be knighted on the last day of the Assembly.

Kelyn replied with a vague, "Mm hmm."

When Kieryn paused on the flagged path, Kelyn paused as well, mindlessly. Kieryn followed his brother's gaze and found a laundry maid wending her way from the well to the Hall. "By the Mother, Kelyn! Is there one female who fails to catch your eye?"

Kelyn shook his head, again vaguely. "There is little in this world more beautiful or alluring than a laundry maid."

Kieryn looked to the heavens. "Oh, Ana . . ."

"No, really. Look." Kelyn pointed, following the girl's progress with his finger. "See the way her spine bends against her burden, and her arm out straight, balancing the basket on her hip."

"You shagged her yet?" Kieryn asked, caustic. "Oh, no, wait, of course you haven't, or you wouldn't be interested anymore."

"She's shy. But she'll come around."

"Like the groom's daughter?"

Kelyn cast him a wounded frown. "You're never going to let me live that down, are you?" He hastened for the dark confines of the Hall.

Kieryn pursued. "Her father sent her away in disgrace, Kelyn."

"What was I supposed to do, marry her? She was a groom's daughter."

"Which was a perfect reason for you to keep your pants on and your hands to yourself."

Kelyn flung open the nearest door and strode down a narrow passage, his boot heels echoing sharply under the vaulted ceiling. He conducted a left turn into the cavernous Great Corridor with military precision. Kieryn matched him pace for pace. Lamps of Harenian stained glass extended graceful necks from the gray walls and winked like red-and-blue eyes, aware and accusing.

Kelyn riposted at last, though poutishly, "What would you know about it anyway, O Great Lord of the Library, who never even looks at women?"

The insult bounced off him. "Ha! I know more than you think I know."

Kelyn's foot seemed to catch on the bottom step of the main stair. He searched his brother's face. "Liar. Who was she?"

Kieryn put a finger to his lips. "I'm a man of honor. I know what the word 'discretion' means." Feeling rather smug now himself, he fled up the stairs.

Kelyn caught up by taking the steps two at a time. "C'mon, you have to tell me."

Kieryn only laughed.

At his chamber door, Kelyn called after him, "I probably had her first, you know."

Kieryn called over his shoulder, "If you had, she didn't mention it."

"She probably thought you were me."

Kieryn grinned. "I made sure she knew the difference." He turned into the library and closed the doors against further inquiry. Lowering his forehead into his fingers, he listened to Kelyn's footsteps recede, heated, quick-paced.

How could he have lowered himself to engage in such a petty, childish argument? There were more important things to worry about than trying to compete with Kelyn's nightly escapades. What could have happened to Aralorr's beloved king? Kieryn supposed he'd run through every option of learning the truth. Even his mother had refused to confide in him. Now he'd have to wait until the Assembly began.

(continues, Chapter 2)

copyright 2012 by Court Ellyn

This text may not be copied or reproduced in any form without the written permission of the author.

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