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A Crown of Stars [MultiFormat]
eBook by L. E. Bryce

eBook Category: Erotica/Erotic Fantasy/Fantasy
eBook Description: The anticipated sequel to My Sun and Stars! Eighteen years have passed, giving rise to a new generation, and new conflicts in the struggle for the throne of Rhodeen. When Zhanil sets out on a clandestine mission into his father's homeland, now ruled by the Turyar, his actions are a catalyst, drawing him into the embrace of the Turya warrior destined to be his soul mate, and propelling him on a journey that may just fulfill an ancient prophecy.

eBook Publisher: Phaze, Published: 2008
Fictionwise Release Date: April 2008


13 Reader Ratings:
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"This is a terrible idea," said Adeja. "I hope you realize that."

Standing by the window with his arms crossed over his chest, Zhanil presented an impressive image: dark-haired, tall, and strong, much like the uncle for whom he had been named. At eighteen, however, he was also stubborn and na´ve. Age will cure him of this foolishness, thought Adeja, if it doesn't kill him first. "Your grandfather put you up to this, didn't he?"

"Why must you think my every thought or action comes from him?" Zhanil asked irritably. "You think he tells me what to do, yet whenever I speak to him, or to my parents, they think you're the one leaning on me. No one gives me credit for having my own opinions."

"I'm not about to give you credit for such a ridiculous idea," said Adeja. "Ampheres has military ambitions. I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if he intends to start acting on them."

Zhanil moved away from the window to take a seat behind a desk cluttered with papers. While he kept his weapons, armor, and riding gear in good order, his clothes and other belongings were a different matter altogether; it was a habit which his parents deplored, and which Adeja overlooked once he realized he could not do anything about it.

"Whenever I visit, Rhodeen is usually the topic of conversation--it's either that or marriage--and Grandfather wants me to be present whenever he receives Turya ambassadors. Father doesn't like his meddling, and neither do I, but I assure you this was my own idea. I think I should at least see the kingdom I might be asked to invade before I agree to anything."

"Under normal circumstances, that would be a wise decision," said Adeja, "but if the Turyar discover who you are, they'll kill you at the border."

"Of course they would, which is why we're going in disguise." Zhanil shuffled through some papers and found a scrap of parchment. Adeja could not see what it said, but guessed the prince had made yet another of the lists of which he was so fond.

"We, my prince?" asked Adeja. "I never said I would come with you."

"I hardly think you'd let me go alone," replied Zhanil. "Then again, I'm not convinced there'll be that much danger, not if we plan correctly. Khalgari travelers cross the border and conduct business with the Turyar all the time. A small party of, say, four men in plain clothes wouldn't attract notice."

Stepping forward, Adeja tapped the list with his forefinger. "In all this meticulous planning, did it once occur to you that the Turya embassy might have spies watching your every move? If you leave Bhellin, you'll be followed, and if you try to cross the border, armed men will be waiting for you. It's suicide."

Zhanil remained unmoved. "Not if we go through Ottabia," he said. "My great-uncle has an estate there, and there's a sanctuary of Abh very close by. We can travel openly to see Olmor and visit the sanctuary with a larger party, then a few of us can slip out as pilgrims. Father is on good terms with the chief priest, so Bedren can help cover our absence in case any Turyar come looking for us."

Adeja paused, realized Zhanil was absolutely set on this course of action, and sighed. Damn you for being so sly, he thought. Then again, teaching the prince to be deceptive was his own fault. "I'll think about it," he said, "but that doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to go along with it."

* * * *

After leaving the prince, Adeja took lunch with members of the palace garrison, ignoring their conversation to contemplate his next move. Zhanil had acquired his headstrong nature from both parents, so it was only natural that he would insist on having his own way.

"Hey, you, soldier."

A pewter spoon tapping the edge of his plate brought him back to attention, and Adeja found himself staring at Kendro, one of the guards from the inner plaza. "You want something, ugly?"

Kendro nodded toward his soup. "You gonna eat that, or sit there moon-faced while it goes cold?"

Sephil would want to know what Zhanil intended to do, and he would not want to hear it from a secondhand source. I'll have to be the one to tell him. Adeja waved Kendro away, dunked a piece of bread into the soup, and finished eating.

At the outer gate, Adeja signed himself out of the palace, tucked his entry chit into a pocket, and walked the short distance to the temple precinct. Khalgar shared many gods with Tajhaan, which would have reassured Adeja had he felt the urge to pray; his lapses were a bad habit for which his otherwise soft-spoken wife reprimanded him. "How will your son learn reverence for the gods if you don't teach him?" she asked.

"Better Arjuna learns to watch his own back, rather than rely on some god to do it for him," he answered.

Tucked amid the larger temples was a small compound devoted to the worship of Abh, the god of healing. Adeja walked unchallenged through the gate and into the main courtyard, where several servants and a priest recognized him. He approached the nearest man, offered the ritual greeting, and asked, "Where is the prince? I need to speak with him."

"In the kitchen," said the groom. "Should I let him know you're here?"

Adeja waved his refusal. "No, I'll find him myself."

These days, Sephil spent most of his time in the sanctuary, living there four months out of the year, leaving only for important festivals or personal emergencies. Sephil's interest in the priesthood had brought him much credit over the last nineteen years, negating most of the slurs and rumors of past indiscretions. Yet while he enjoyed a favorable public image, he also had a genuine vocation, finding contentment through prayer, meditation, and charitable works.

Adeja found him in the sanctuary kitchen, helping the cooks fill bowls of soup to feed the destitute who came seeking succor. "My prince, I need to speak with you."

Sephil glanced up, clearly surprised to see him. "Is it urgent?"

"It's about your son."

"These days it usually is, Adeja. What has he done now?" Then, seeing Adeja did not share in the joke, Sephil changed his tone. "Has something happened to him?"

"Not yet, but I need to speak with you before something does."

Handing his ladle off to another priest, Sephil removed the apron he wore over his robes and followed Adeja into the corridor. Once he confirmed that they were alone, he asked, "Now tell me what is wrong?"

"Zhanil is talking about going to Rhodeen."

Sephil's eyes widened. "What?"

"He intends to go in secret," explained Adeja, "with three or four men for protection. He claims he wants to see what Rhodeen is like."

"Was this his grandfather's idea?" asked Sephil. "Gods help him if it was. He will get himself killed crossing the border."

Adeja shook his head. "No, he claims it was all his idea. I've warned him against going, and done everything else I can, but he won't listen to reason."

"But you cannot stop him," finished Sephil. Suddenly he seemed much older and frailer than his thirty-nine years, and Adeja had to restrain the urge to place a comforting hand on his shoulder. "He will not listen to me either, Adeja. He thinks I am too much the pacifist."

"Young men are foolish," said Adeja. "Most of the time only experience can cure them of their delusions. Zhanil's set on this expedition, and he's old enough to do as he wishes. If he goes, I'll go with him, of course, just to keep him away from Shemin-at-Khul and Cassiare. There's plenty of interaction between the Turyar and Khalgari travelers on the frontier, so he might be perfectly safe there as long as he maintains his disguise."

"But you are Tajhaani, Adeja," said Sephil. "People will notice you."

Adeja smiled to reassure him. "I lost my accent twenty years ago, my prince, and my coloring isn't much different than most Khalgari. If it makes you feel better, I could stay at home and have Amset and Nahar go with him, since they both speak Rhodeen, but I think you'd rather I went along."

Sephil put his face in his hands and slumped against the wall. "If anything happens to him, Adeja," he began, "I do not know what I will do."

Ignoring the risk, Adeja placed a steadying hand on his arm. "If anything happens, then neither one of us will come back. It'll be all right, my prince. As long as he listens to this old soldier and doesn't do anything foolish, I think it'll be all right."

Sephil nodded, yet looked no less apprehensive than before. "I do not want to have to explain this to his mother."

"No doubt he'll tell her himself," said Adeja.

"Will Arjuna be going with you?"

"No, he goes to the academy in two days."

"Give my love to him," said Sephil, "and tell Zhanil I wish to see him before he goes. If he hesitates or says he is busy, tell him it is not a request, and that I will come looking for him if he does not."

* * * *

From the moment he received the message, Zhanil knew his father was displeased. Now, sitting across from Sephil in a narrow room in the sanctuary of Abh, he struggled to explain and offer assurances that he knew what he was doing. His confidence faltering, it was all he could do to sound coherent.

His father answered with a sharply indrawn breath. "Do you merely wish to see Rhodeen," asked Sephil, "or do you wish to lead an army there?"

"Give me credit for having my own ambitions."

"When your ambitions coincide too much with the nonsense your grandfather has been pouring into your head, I have to question that," said Sephil. "If he has anything to do with this, I will tell you now that your plan--and any possible campaign that comes out of it--is doomed. Your grandfather knows what the Turyar are like in battle, and if he has not yet told you, he is a fool."

While Zhanil knew that his father did not always approve of his grandfather, it was rare to hear him say so, and with such vehemence, for it was not often that Sephil showed his anger. "I've been told that they're fierce in battle, and that they attack without warning."

"And did your grandfather or any of your tutors tell you what atrocities they commit on those unfortunate enough to be taken by them?"

"Adeja told me they don't always spare the innocent," said Zhanil.

The smile with which Sephil answered him was a grim thing that stayed in Zhanil's mind long after the conversation ended. "Did he tell you anything more than that? Did he tell you how the Turyar hacked off your uncle Zhanil's head and used his mutilated body as a banner? Or how they butchered your grandfather and your uncle's wife and small children, throwing the bodies from the pyramid of the Sun?"

In fact, Adeja described only his own encounters with the Turyar, telling how they razed villages and sacked the mountain citadel of Mekesh, from which he had barely escaped with his life. On the subject of the sack of Rhodeen, he deferred to Zhanil's father, who refused to discuss it at all.

"When you were born," continued Sephil, "your mother hated it that I called you Zhanil. She thought you would meet the same fate as your uncle. How am I going to console her when the Turyar send your body back home in twenty pieces?"

Blinking back horrific mental images, Zhanil swallowed hard. "This isn't about conquest, Father," he replied. "I know what Grandfather thinks, and what his ambitions are--"

"Your grandfather is too careful to reveal his ambitions."

Ever the master of equivocation, Ampheres neither uttered promises nor described his plans when it came to Zhanil's future, yet in small turns of phrase or appointments made, Zhanil thought he could glimpse the strategist beneath his grandfather's neutral exterior. It was the king, not his father, who had him learn the language of Rhodeen, as well as the customs and gods of a land alien to Khalgar. While his cousins took their martial training together, Zhanil had private tutors.

He obeyed his instructors, yet he was no fool. I am eighteen now, and an adult, but what am I to do with the rest of my life? Neither Grandfather nor anyone else has said anything to me about choosing a path, whether it be the army, or the priesthood, or anything else. Grandfather doesn't suffer fools, much less lazy ones. He has plans for me. He just hasn't seen fit to tell me what they are.

"My education hasn't been for nothing," he said. "You know as well as I that all those private tutors have been grooming me for something, though what that something is, I don't quite know. But the day might come when Grandfather decides to make a claim on the throne of Rhodeen. I want to be ready when that time comes. Our enemies in Tajhaan aren't sitting comfortably in their palace waiting for turkan Arzhati or the other Turya leaders to conveniently vacate Rhodeen, because the Turyar have made it clear that they're not leaving. Tajhaan is already conducting raids and laying the foundations for an invasion--"

"I thought you just said this was not about conquest," said Sephil.

Zhanil searched for the right words, wishing his father could simply understand without his having to explain. This should be so obvious, and yet he doesn't see it. "It is not, but they will eventually make a move, and if they oust the Turyar from Rhodeen, they will be on our doorstep."

"A prince does not conduct his own reconnaissance," replied Sephil. "Find yourself reliable advisors and spies."

"Who will do what: lie to and flatter me? I want to see Rhodeen with my own eyes," said Zhanil.

Sephil sighed heavily. "I do not know what you expect to see, but you will find a very different land from the one I left."

"I know," replied Zhanil, "and that's why I want to go myself. I want to know firsthand how the people are living under their Turya leaders. I want to know if they are content, or if they are living in fear and oppression. That isn't something I can get from the ambassadors who come to court, and I don't trust any of the spies here in Khalgar to tell the truth. Grandfather controls them all, and he'll pay them to say what he wants me to hear."

Leaning forward, Sephil propped his elbows on the table and placed his head in his hands. "Your good intentions could kill you," he said heavily. "My only consolation is that I do not have to remind you to roughen your speech. You speak like a common soldier already."

In another context, the comment would have been a barb, but Zhanil could see in his father's posture and voice how much the situation pained him. Not knowing what else to do or say, Zhanil tried to ease the tension with humor. "Father, I don't speak like a soldier all the time."

The tactic did not work. "No," agreed Sephil, "but sometimes you forget you are a prince. Perhaps it did not matter so much when you were a child, but now that you are grown you must remember to behave with greater discretion. Right now, there is an uneasy peace between Khalgar and the Turyar. Should you be discovered crossing the border, you might be killed. The peace could be broken and Khalgar drawn into war where we cannot afford it. You must consider that outcome."

"You're telling me things I already know. Believe me, I have thought this out," said Zhanil. "The Turyar won't even know I've been there."

"Adeja is against this."

Zhanil laughed, yet not loudly enough to carry outside the small room. "Of course he is. Who else would have told you what I planned?"

"Listen to him, Zhanil, if you will not listen to me. Right now, there is nothing more I can say."

Sephil's priestly duties meant a truncated visit. Zhanil let his father walk him to the sanctuary gate and kiss him on both cheeks, but made no answer when asked to reconsider. At this, Sephil sighed and nodded. "Do as you will, but give my love to Ellina and your mother when you see them, and try to do as Adeja tells you."

During the short ride back to the palace, Zhanil wondered yet again why he had to convey messages between family members and others when they were perfectly capable of communicating with each other on their own. With his father and grandfather, he understood their discord, as he was the cause of it, but his parents should have had a warmer relationship than they did. A long time ago, he recalled, they had been affectionate, and his father had spent more time in the palace. Now they were simply cordial, and his father's preferred home was the sanctuary of Abh.

As he meant to visit them anyway, Zhanil gave his father's message to his mother and sister, and spent an hour with them as they sewed in the company of their ladies. Even had they been alone, he would not have mentioned his plans, but did mention that he intended to go for a time to his great-uncle's estate in Ottabia.

"How dull," commented Ellina. "There is nothing in Ottabia but hills and shrines."

"There are also cattle, and olive trees and goats do very well there. Olmor means to let me try my hand at governing the manor," replied Zhanil. Despite what his father claimed, he made certain to use correct speech at court and in front of his mother and thirteen-year-old sister. "I have been doing well managing my own household, so I look forward to the opportunity."

"In a month you will be bored," she said.

Zhanil laughed. "In a month, you will see some handsome boy at court, and forget you even have a brother."

Ellina glanced up from her needlework, blushed, and immediately lowered her eyes again. "Maybe Arjuna can visit while you are away."

"Ah, so you think he is handsome," he teased.

"Ellina," their mother said sharply, "Arjuna is a soldier's son, and not suitable company for a princess."

Zhanil had long suspected that Ketalya did not like Arjuna on account of his father, who made no attempt to be genteel. Arjuna himself was always polite and reserved, usually with his nose buried in a book. "Mother," he replied, giving his chastised sister a reassuring smile, "Ellina is only joking. She knows you and Father have some grand dynastic marriage planned for her. Besides, Arjuna is going into the academy in a few days and would not be able to visit, anyway."

For the next hour, he maintained a light banter with his mother, sister, and the younger ladies-in-waiting who fluttered their eyelashes and offered surreptitious smiles when Ketalya was not looking. Secretly, he remained troubled, torn between taking the advice both his father and Adeja had given him, and proceeding with the task he knew must be undertaken. It's a fool's errand, I know, he thought, but I must know for myself what the situation is in Rhodeen. When the time comes--if it comes--I'm not going into this blind.

That evening, Zhanil invited Arjuna to dine with him. Upon his majority, his grandfather had arranged for him to move into a modest suite of apartments, and to receive an allowance drawn from the privy purse. His mother found him a reliable steward to manage his funds and staff, while Adeja continued to supervise his bodyguards and all other security arrangements. Zhanil enjoyed the freedom of an independent household, though he heeded Adeja's warning that some of the servants were spies.

"Do not confront them or try to replace them," said Adeja. "They work for your grandfather and are no threat to you. Whatever you wish to keep secret, make sure you don't put it in writing. Even if you lock it away at night, you can be sure the servants will find the key and read what you write, even those endless lists of yours."

During the meal, Zhanil took care not to embarrass his friend by mentioning Ellina's youthful infatuation with him; the servants would only carry the tale back to Ampheres, if he did not know already. Instead, he discussed his upcoming trip to Ottabia, omitting any mention of Rhodeen and the Turyar, and apologized for an earlier slight which he knew had troubled Arjuna.

"I wanted you and your parents at my birthday banquet, you know I did," he said, "but my mother and grandfather insisted only blood relations and high-ranking nobles were to be invited. I had nothing to say about it."

Arjuna, dropping his head, murmured something unintelligible. At that moment, Zhanil felt as guilty as when he first told his friend that neither he nor his parents were on the guest list, and wondered if he should have said anything at all.

"It was horrible," he added, with a small laugh. Smile, Arjuna, and tell me it's all right, that you understand. "I've never been so bored in my life, and that's counting all those dry lessons in geography and language. I had to sit on the dais next to Grandfather for half the night greeting courtiers I didn't know and smiling at their empty-headed daughters. I wanted you there, but it would have bored you to death. You're fortunate you didn't come."

"I'm sure," Arjuna said quietly. His neutral expression did not change.

Drop the subject, or he will tell you what he really thinks. "This private supper is much more enjoyable, believe me." Zhanil signaled to the servants to refill Arjuna's wine cup and bring out the first course. "I can't believe you're actually going into the academy."

Arjuna, shaking his head, dismissed the subject. "Please don't remind me. Father isn't giving me any choice."

"You should do very well," said Zhanil. Arjuna was tall and athletic like his father, and more than capable of holding his own in a fight, yet expressed little interest in military life. "Tonight we celebrate my birthday and your new career. Alassil, would you bring in the entertainment?"

The steward ushered in a comely youth and two girls, three of the many pleasure slaves maintained by the palace for visiting dignitaries and the elite. When a startled Arjuna sat up in his chair, Zhanil smiled and winked. "Go ahead and choose one."

"But you've never shared--"

"You're a guest, and I'm being a good host," said Zhanil.

Arjuna hesitated. "My parents work in the royal establishment. That hardly makes me a guest."

Zhanil began to feel the first twinges of impatience. "If you're sitting at my table eating my food and drinking my wine, you're a guest. Now choose one before I have Alassil go down to the scullery and bring back the ugliest girl he can find."

"If you say so, but only because you insist." Arjuna chose a slender, dark-haired girl with bells on her ankles. Zhanil was tempted to take a girl also, but even as his eyes lingered over the remaining girl he recalled his grandfather's admonishments to be careful about where he spent his seed.

Sometimes Zhanil had a girl massage him with fragrant oils and suck his cock, but tonight he wanted more than that. Rather than the willowy girl he preferred, he settled on the other, a lissome young man with golden skin and full lips, and led him by the hand to his bedchamber while Arjuna took his girl to a cushioned divan in the corner.

Zhanil enjoyed a youth's taut nipples and firm ass as much as any man might, but whenever he had a boy he found he did not give as much attention to his partner's pleasure. The girls he always kissed and caressed, so they came even if he did not penetrate them.

I should've chosen a girl and just done with her what I always do, he thought, listening to the murmurs and soft moans Arjuna and the girl made as they kissed and fondled each other on the opposite end of the room. "What is your name?" he asked his partner.

"Imbri, sir," said the young man. Rising to his knees, he arched his back and lifted his garment over his head. Underneath, he wore nothing. "What is your pleasure, sir?"

Zhanil took his time about undressing, letting his gaze travel over his partner's body; his imagination supplied enough variations to stir his desire. "Make me ready for you, and then we'll see."

Climbing onto the bed, he covered Imbri's mouth with his, slipping his tongue between willing lips before leaning back among the cushions. Imbri dropped to all fours, then slid sinuously between Zhanil's legs, his buttocks teasing the air, and went to work, licking and sucking. Zhanil watched, smiling when he remembered that girls could not get as much cock in their mouths, and gave himself over to the pleasurable sensations in his groin until he knew he was about to come.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Arjuna busy between the girl's legs, rubbing her as she moaned; the bells on her ankles jingled as she writhed under him. That Arjuna had such skill surprised Zhanil, who had never even seen him talk to a girl aside from the bashful answers he gave whenever Ellina tried to get his attention. Then again, with a father like Adeja, Arjuna had probably seen the inside of a brothel the moment his voice changed.

Zhanil drew Imbri up onto his chest to share a lingering kiss. "How do you want me in you?"

Imbri seemed confounded by the question. "However you like, sir."

In the end, he took Imbri from behind, one hand gripping the young man's waist for balance as he thrust, while the other grasped Imbri's cock and stroked in time with his movements until he felt a rush of warmth spurt into his fingers. He heard a moan, and felt the young man's body shudder and clench around his buried cock. Zhanil thrust once, twice, and came with a loud groan.

Once his partner bathed him with a warm, damp cloth from the sideboard, and he saw that Arjuna was also spent, Zhanil dismissed the slaves and sprawled out across the bed in a comfortable haze of exhaustion. Sometimes he kept his partner with him, but with company present he decided against it.

"You didn't answer my question before," he said to Arjuna. "Why did your father enroll you in the academy? You've already had military training." Some things Zhanil knew from Adeja, but the man did not discuss family matters with him and Arjuna would not volunteer the information without prompting. While he thought he could guess the reason, he preferred to hear the truth firsthand.

"Father wants me to have a good job in the army," replied Arjuna, "and for that he insists I need the proper credentials. He's set on my being an officer."

Even after nineteen years of service, Adeja's own lack of Khalgari military credentials presented a problem at court. Zhanil understood and agreed with his good intentions for his son, yet at the same time sympathized with Arjuna. "You can still tell him no."

"And he can still take me across his knee and thrash me, which he's threatened to do," said Arjuna. "Mother doesn't want me to go, but he insists. He says there are plenty of jobs in the military for bookish types. They argue about it sometimes."

Zhanil chewed his lip for a moment, climbed out of bed, and crept to the door, opening it slightly to make certain no one was listening at the keyhole. "I've something to tell you," he said. Crouching down beside the divan, he leaned close and whispered, "I know I said I was going to Ottabia. I'm still going, but then Adeja and I are crossing the border into Rhodeen."

Arjuna's eyes widened, and he started to sit up and speak. Zhanil made shushing noises while placing a hand on Arjuna's shoulder to steady him. "Not so loudly," he said, murmuring against the lip of Arjuna's ear. "Father is the only one who knows about it. I can't risk having my grandfather find out."

"Are you mad?" Arjuna whispered back. "The Turyar will kill you."

"They won't even know we were there. I just want to see how the people are living under the Turyar, if it's even worth it to plan an invasion, should the time come for that."

"You could get spies to tell you those things. You're a fool for putting yourself in danger like this. Men will try to kill you," said Arjuna.

"They try to kill me now." Zhanil climbed onto the divan beside him. "I'm not worried. I'm not going to tell anyone who I am. Khalgari merchants and travelers have been going in and out of Rhodeen for ten years now. I've heard the roads are safer now under the Turyar than they ever were before."

Arjuna did not look convinced. "They're supposed to be your enemies."

Hugging his knees to his chest, Zhanil thought hard for a moment before answering. "It's a complicated situation, Arjuna. They acknowledge me as a member of the Khalgari royal family, nothing else. We have a strong army, and fifty years ago both my grandfathers defeated the Turyar at the Irrend Pass, but now we maintain neutral relations with them because we can't afford to fight both them and Tajhaan. So they're not exactly our friends, but not officially enemies either. From what little I've heard, they've intermarried into Rhodeen society, become part of it. It might already be too late to drive them out. I don't know, only that I need to go and see for myself."

"I still think you've lost your mind," said Arjuna.

"You'd say that about your best friend?"

With his teasing tone, Zhanil meant to only lighten the mood, but when Arjuna did not reciprocate he realized that in trying to reassure others, he gave the impression that he was not taking the matter as seriously as he ought. "Yes," he admitted quietly, "it's foolish, but there are some things a man simply has to see with his own eyes. My father doesn't understand that, and neither does yours."

"And neither do I," added Arjuna.

Zhanil nodded, suddenly weary of the explanations, the attempts to articulate his convictions. Of all the people who should have understood his motives, he felt certain it would have been Arjuna.

There had been a time when they were inseparable, sharing secrets as well as toys. Now Zhanil counted himself fortunate if he could decipher what Arjuna thought or felt at any given moment. He could not even recall when Arjuna had started to become so secretive, so distant. Perhaps it had happened so gradually that, like the passing of one season into the next, he never noticed.

* * * *

Quiet enfolded the sanctuary like a soft blanket, tempting its residents to sleep. In his cell, Sephil remained restless, unable to lie down and close his eyes as he intended. Instead, he knelt on the floor beside his cot and tried to meditate, to yield his fears to the god and cleanse himself, until he realized that Abh could not soothe what ailed him.

Had he the power to make Zhanil see the foolishness of his errand, he would, but, like Adeja, he knew all too well that the young heeded only their own experience, not the wisdom of their elders. Sephil had said all he could, revealed more than he wanted, and now he could do nothing but wait. At eighteen, Zhanil could make his own decisions, however rash they were.

The knowledge tormented Sephil. The tenets of Abh urged him to surrender all temporal concerns in search of spiritual enlightenment, yet while he could give up material comforts, Sephil found it difficult to deny his emotions. Zhanil was his only son, his own blood, and he could not turn away. More than anything, he wanted to lock Zhanil in his apartments until the boy saw reason, as he knew his wife would have done.

For that reason, he did not tell her what their son intended to do.

Zhanil now occupied a world beyond the nursery, with adult choices and consequences. Danger could find its way past the thickest walls, the sturdiest locks and most diligent guards. Staying at home in Bhellin did not necessarily mean he would remain safe.

His parents had lived with the knowledge since before Zhanil's birth. Both remembered each attempt on his life as surely as if the assassins had struck at them, and nothing could erase the horror of the last. After thirteen years, only random images stayed with Sephil, yet they were enough: blood and gore spattered over the walls, more blood pooling around the dead man, who scarcely looked human after Adeja had finished with him, and the rage burning in Adeja's eyes, mingled with traces of the fever that had kept him from his post to begin with.

Dreading what he would find, Sephil had had to force himself to step through the blood and into the nursery. Adeja held his sobbing son, stopping the wound with his own hands, while Zhanil stood motionless in the corner, dark eyes huge with shock, fixed on the crimson smears on the doorjamb; he said nothing, not even when Sephil gathered him into his arms and held him close.

What the men did not say, the women did. Arjuna's mother never saw the terrible scene, never knew how close her son came to death, but Ketalya, pregnant with Ellina, nearly miscarried from fright, and flew into a towering rage as soon as she recovered. Because she could not punish the assassin or those who sent him, or evict Adeja, who was only doing his duty by killing the man, she turned on her husband instead, silently reproaching him for bringing the specter of violence into their household.

You knew when you accepted me in marriage that I was an heir without a kingdom, a prince with mortal enemies, he thought, but he never spoke the words aloud. Ketalya had known only what her father told her, and by the time she learned the rest, it had been too late for her to reconsider.

From that day, a measure of warmth died between them. Not knowing what else to do, Sephil turned to the religion that gave him comfort and withdrew from their household for as much of the year as propriety and his father-in-law would allow.

Perhaps the move had drawn attention away from Zhanil, as he hoped, but suspected the credit for the ensuing years of peace belonged to Ampheres, whose response to the attempt on his grandson's life had been to close the Tajhaani embassy, evict all the ambassadors, and threaten military action should another such incident occur. While Zhanil remained a child, his enemies in Tajhaan had stayed their hand, yet now that he was an adult who could thwart their dynastic ambitions, his life would be in danger once more.

No walls or guards can protect him from what is coming, not forever. Sephil leaned his head against his folded hands. Zhanil is a man now, and will stay or go as he believes he must do, but if he dies his mother will blame me as surely as if I had sent him.


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