King Jansson van Tannen added his signature to the trade agreement, then raised his wine glass, smiling. "Lord Bowle, let this be the beginning of a profitable and equitable partnership. I assure you that Odora Dava will do everything in our power to see to a peaceful exchange of goods."
Lord Bowle of Kartonn raised his glass in response. With an inner sign, Jansson watched him drain the goblet. He hated these formal dinners, the politics, the policies. But it came with running a kingdom. Still, he was a bit miffed that his advisor King Kyel Sylvain had not been in attendance. Things always seemed to go smoother with the elfin king's eloquent speech and royal manners. Not that he hadn't tried, over the years, to mold Jansson in his likeness. It was just that Jansson, being a human, seemed to lack the natural grace of an elf, and the verbal power of this particular elf.
Jansson sat his glass down, his thoughts more on Kyel than the stony-faced Lord before him. Kyel would be leaving within the hour. Without him. The idea grated on Jansson nerves and caused his dinner to congeal into a hard lump in his stomach. It wasn't fair. While he would be left to entertain Lord Bowle and his pompous, self-centered son, Kyel would be merrily traipsing through Winze on a quest he hadn't even approved of less than six months earlier.
"M'Lord?" The page appeared at Jansson's elbow, startling him. "Dessert?"
Jansson flushed, realizing the page had already asked him the question twice. He nodded. "Yes, Noa. You may serve dessert."
Lord Bowle stroked his thick, brown beard thoughtfully. "Your attention seems to be divided, Your Majesty. I do hope you were fully aware of the agreement you signed." He chuckled lightly, although his point stung.
Jansson's flush deepened and, for the first time that night, he was glad Kyel was not in attendance. He had learned in his twenty-three years as the elf's adopted son that even at the age of thirty-six, he was never above a lecture or a reprimand. He forced a smile to his face.
"I assure you, Lord Bowle, I know every word on that agreement. Bards are often accused of not paying attention when, in fact, we notice a great deal."
Lord Bowle laughed and leaned back in his chair. "Ah, yes. I have heard wonderful things about your talents as a bard, Your Majesty. Perhaps after dinner you could--"
A loud crashing in the corridor outside the dining hall interrupted him. Jansson came to his feet as a loud, offensive epithet echoed shrilly. Gods! He knew that voice! He moved quickly to the door and flung it open, Lord Bowle close behind.
Two boys were scuffling on the shiny, stone floor, the shattered remnants of several porcelain statues scattered about. As Jansson watched in horror, the smaller of the boys, an exact image of himself, drew back his arm and landed a fist square on the other boy's cheek.
"Brann!" Jansson snapped. He strode forward and yanked his son up.
Blood ran from the boy's nose, and his left eye was an angry red. His brown curls hung in unruly, wet masses across his sun-touched face, and his clothing, what there was of it, still showed signs of a day spent at Lake Mayfaire.
Jansson's gaze went to the other boy, a young man really, two years Brann's senior at seventeen. Lord Bowle's son Floy was tall and willowy, but his arms beneath his silk tunic showed muscles not even Jansson could match. Floy came to his feet, his dark eyes angry, his fists clenched.
"He is mad!" he seethed, jabbing a long, white finger at Brann.
For a moment, Lord Bowle merely stared at the boy, then he abruptly stepped forward. "What is the meaning of this?" he demanded.
"Brann?" Jansson asked in a tight whisper. "Would you care to explain?"
Brann glared at his father and crossed his arms defiantly over his bare chest. "No!"
Jansson started, caught off-guard by the retort. "Brann, perhaps I was not clear in my request. What happened?" Anger swelled inside of him when Brann remained quiet.
"I'll tell you what happened!" Floy exploded. "Your son lacks breeding. I quite politely inquired about his further use of a courtesan--"
"She's not a courtesan!" Brann shrieked, his arms snapping to his sides, hands balled into fists.
Jansson physically restrained him, trying to make some sense of the words as Kyel strode down the hallway to join them. The black elf's crystal blue gaze danced over the statuary destruction, Floy's split lip, Brann's bloody nose and blackening eye, then settled on Lord Bowle.
"Lord Bowle," he said softly, "there appears to be a miscommunication on our part. Mayfaire houses no courtesans. I apologize if one of our staff alluded to that."
"That's not true!" Floy cried. "I saw the brand! She's a Kartonnian slave woman."
"She isn't!" Brann screamed.
Kyel laid a hand on Brann's shoulder and, though the black elf's expression never changed, Brann stiffened and fell silent.
"I know of whom you speak, Master Floy," Kyel said calmly. "At one time, perhaps that was her place. It is no longer. Noa!"
"Yes, Your Majesty?" The page came forward and bowed deeply.
"Noa, take Master Floy to his quarters. Have Healer Kirsi see to his wounds. King Jansson, perhaps you and your son would like to talk in private. Lord Bowle, please, accompany me to the study. I am most interested to learn more of this mining technique your people have devised. Though," he chuckled, "as you well know, iron is not an elf's best friend."
Lord Bowle paused a moment, then clasped his hands behind his back. "Actually, Your Majesty, I think rest would be appreciated. I'm afraid that I've overindulged in the exquisite food presented at dinner."
"As you wish," Kyel said smoothly. "Allow me to accompany you to your quarters."
Again, the Lord hesitated, then nodded, and strode away without another word to his son, Kyel following silently. Jansson frowned, then turned his attention to Floy. The young man tore his gaze from the retreating figure of his father, gave Brann a last scathing look, then stomped down the hallway, more leading than following Noa. Jansson heaved a sigh of relief, then eyed his son with a mixture of anger and understanding.
"Come on, let's get you cleaned up," he said, and steered the boy into the kitchen.
Nelda, the dwarf cook, looked up and gasped. "Prince Brann!" she breathed, then bustled about, seeking various treatments for his injuries.
Jansson motioned Brann to sit, which the boy did with an angry huff. Jansson waited until Nelda had treated the bloody nose with staghorn, and given Brann a chamomile poultice for his eye before speaking.
"Tell me what happened, Brann," he said quietly, sitting down opposite his son.
Brann looked up and there were suddenly tears in his brown eyes. "He wanted to bed Kitiara," he mumbled, then winced at a gasp from Nelda. He drew a long breath and continued. "He...he asked me if I was done with her."
"I see." Jansson sighed. As an empath, he was acutely aware of Brann's turmoil. It had been going on ever since he had met the girl over a year earlier in Kartonn. She had saved his life and, in the process, Brann had fallen in love with her. Or so he thought.
But their backgrounds were as different as their personalities. Brann had grown up as a prince with all of the benefits of such. Kitiara had grown up hard and fast, forced to take care of herself at an early age. And she had found one way to do that was to sell herself. That she had used her 'talent' to help free dozens of slaves hadn't seemed to matter to the rest of Kartonn. Nor did her position in the royal household. Apparently, she was still seen as only a possession. A possession who could be passed around. The thought disgusted Jansson, and he wondered again about this trade agreement with Kartonn.
Yet, he couldn't let his son's personal problems affect his entire kingdom. Kartonn had iron. Iron made for strong tools and cooking utensils, although Mayfaire palace used no such metal. Iron was a threat to elves, binding their magic, making it useless and rendering them powerless. And, even though Kyel and his family were the only elves at the palace, Jansson had a lot of elfin friends who visited on a regular basis. He wasn't about to risk any of them being caught without their magic.
"Papa," Brann murmured, regaining his attention. "Am I doing the right thing? I mean, in asking Tia to stay here?"
Jansson sighed and reached out to pat Brann's hand, then noticed his knuckles were red and scratched. "I don't know, Brann. That's a hard question to answer. Have you thought of an alternative?"
"Well..." Brann brought his gaze up to meet Jansson's, "...I could go with her."
Jansson's stomach knotted up. "No, Brann, you couldn't. You're a prince. Like it or not, one day you'll be king. You don't have the freedom to simply run off and live where you want to. Especially not in another country that has its own king."
"But, papa, I'm so tired of this. Why won't everyone just leave Kitiara alone? Gods! Didn't she prove herself to them already? She almost died trying to protect the whole of Glede. Her daughter is the Fane Queen for gods' sakes!"
Agony twisted through Jansson at the mention of the Fane Queen. His daughter. Xyza. The infant he had rescued from the Caves of Challenge, had raised for almost nine years as his own, and had lost to her heritage. A heritage Jansson had known nothing about until that fateful day when Xyza had been called back to her own kind. It brought his mind back to Kyel's trip.
The elf was taking four of the nineteen children they'd rescued from the Caves of Challenge to Winze in an effort to locate their parents or their siblings. It was an effort Jansson wholly supported and he wished he could go along on the trip. But Kyel's words of responsibility still rang in his ears, words very similar to those he, himself, had just uttered to Brann. He shook himself mentally, hating himself for saying them, yet knowing they were true. More than once, he had run up against the reality of his position. He still didn't deem it as fair, and thought again of his plans to form a council, instead of a king, to rule Odora Dava. Instead of him and Brann and Brann's firstborn son. He looked up, startled, as Tavin, Kyel's youngest at fifteen, burst breathlessly into the kitchen.
The boy was disheveled, his emerald green eyes questioning. He went immediately to Brann, his friend and SoulMate.
"What happened?" he asked softly, then shook his head. "It was Kitiara again, wasn't it?"
Brann nodded, and Jansson watched as the two boys slipped into a MindLink that left him feeling awkward and intrusive. He didn't fully understand the SoulMate thing. He knew that his best friend, Treyas Merripen, Crown Prince of the Elfin Empire, had such a bond with his squire Druce Sinclair and his own wife Cynthe. It was something possible only through an elf, and usually elf to elf, such as the bond between Kyel and his wife Willow. But twice now, Jansson had seen it involve a race other than an elf. Try as he might, he just couldn't fully grasp the connection. Now, he rose and squeezed Brann's shoulder gently.
"I'll leave you two to talk."
"Papa." Brann looked up at him. "Did I make a mess of the trade agreement?"
"No. Don't worry about it. Kyel has a way of smoothing things over." He put one finger under Brann's chin and tipped the boy's head back. "You're going to have one fine black eye."
"Danns," Brann murmured. "I need to have this healed before..."
"Brann!" A young woman burst into the kitchen, her green eyes glowing with excitement. Her copper-red hair has escaped its ties to frame her delicate features, and Jansson was once again taken with her frail beauty. She wore only the shortened tunic and knee-length hose popular with the young people for swimming. While her left leg was normal and svelte, her right leg was shriveled due to her past exposure to a disease of her homeland. At first, she had been shy about showing her leg, but, in her time at Mayfaire, she had relaxed enough that she no longer kept it hidden.
She held a container in her hands that showed a small, green shoot just poking through the dirt. It was a seed from her native Kartonn, something she had been trying to grow for months. Apparently, the flower had finally decided to cooperate. Unfortunately, the timing was bad. She gasped as Brann looked her way, then hurriedly turned his face. Jansson braced himself mentally against the emotions that slammed into his Empathic Gift.
"What happened?" Kitiara breathed.
"I...I fell," Brann lied.
For a moment, Kitiara was quiet, then she drew herself up stiffly. "Into whose fist this time?"
"Tia." Brann turned to look at her. "It was nothing. Just a misunderstanding."
"No. No, it...it was about--"
"Me," Tavin put in quickly. "Me and Brann and...and the Jodau issue."
Kitiara's gaze went from one boy to the other. "You lie badly, Tavin."
Brann rose, but Kitiara stepped back from his reach. Jansson took a deep breath, clearly reading her hurt, anger and self-pity.
"I'm tired of this, Brann," she said, her voice shaky, tears collecting in her eyes. "I'm tired of seeing you bruised and bleeding because of me."
"Tia, it's not because of you," Brann retorted. "It's because of me. Because I can't ignore other people's stupidity."
Tears overflowed and ran down her cheeks. "It's not stupidity, Brann! It's the truth! You know it, I know it and all of Glede knows it!" She hurled the container to the floor, spun and bolted from the room.
Brann stared at the spilled dirt and the small, now broken, sprout. Without a word, he knelt and began to scoop up the remnants of the plant. After a moment, he sighed and sat back. "Papa, how did Floy know about Tia's past?"
Jansson shrugged and knelt beside his son, spurred into action by the question. He scooped up a handful of dirt and placed it in the container. "I don't know, Brann. I really don't. I can't imagine that Kitiara had access to Kartonn nobility."
"Maybe Floy was just trying to start a fight," Tavin put in.
"I don't think so," Brann returned. "To be truthful, he was polite in his asking about her. As if he'd done it dozens of times before with other women." He gently placed the sprout into the dirt. "He said she bore a slave brand. I've never seen a brand on her, and I've seen more of her than Floy ever has." He blushed suddenly and shot a quick glance at Jansson. "I mean, I've seen only what...well, except for that one time, I've..." His words trailed off.
Jansson kept his grin to himself. He fully remembered Zira telling him about their son's first encounter with Kitiara, and the fact that Brann had seen the girl in the gods' own attire. Unquestionably, the image had etched itself into the boy's mind.
"Maybe you should ask her," Tavin said. "About the brand, I mean."
Brann rose, cradling the re-potted plant in his hands. "Why didn't she just tell me? Gods! Why does she keep things from me all of the time? Just like she kept the information about Xyza and Xyza's father from me."
"Brann," Jansson said quietly as he straightened. "You have to realize that Kitiara's past is hard for her to accept. She did what she had to do to survive, and talking about it reminds her of things she's obviously not proud of."
"I suppose." Brann sighed. "I just wish everyone else wouldn't be reminded." He handed the plant to Tavin. "I'm going to find her. Are you and Jayet still planning on--" He stopped abruptly.
Tavin's brown cheeks flushed and he quickly averted his gaze. Jansson chuckled.
"Are you speaking of the moonlight horse ride?" he asked.
"How did you know?" Brann gasped.
"Because, my young prince, all such excursions are cleared by me to ensure adequate protection for you."
Brann's eyes went wide, and he shot a glance at Tavin, then looked back at his father. "You...you mean that all of the other times we went...riding...there were soldiers watching us?"
Jansson curtailed his laughter, almost overwhelmed by the embarrassment rolling off the two boys. "Yes. Is that a problem?"
"No!" they cried together.
"Good. I'll see you both later." Jansson flashed them a smile and left the kitchen. He paused outside the door just long enough to hear Brann and Tavin's groans of dismay, then, shaking with silent laughter, he went in search of Kyel.
He met the elf on the stairway, alone, and sighed with relief. "I take it you smoothed things over with Lord Bowle?"
Kyel nodded as they turned their steps toward the library. "I do hope that you impressed upon Brann that there are other ways to solve a dispute than with violence."
Jansson hesitated just a moment too long in his answer, and Kyel stopped, his gaze parental.
"Apparently, you and I need to talk about it as well," he said sharply.
Jansson flushed. "Well, gods, Kyel! What would you have done? That mouthy little---"
"King Jansson!" Kyel interrupted. "Floy is the son of a visiting dignitary. As such, he commands respect from this household. If Brann cannot afford that respect, then he needs to confine himself to his room during such visits." Kyel turned and once more began to walk.
Jansson grimaced and hurried after him. "That seems a bit harsh."
"Harsh? More harsh than pummeling each other like peasants on a drunk?" He stopped outside the library, his gaze locking onto Jansson's. "We also need to discuss, once again, your seeming inability to keep your thoughts on the matter at hand during a political dinner."
Jansson stared at him, aghast. "But, Kyel, my mind was on..."
"Me and my trip," Kyel interrupted again. "You may have thought that I wasn't present at the meeting when, in fact, I was." He tapped his forehead, then went into the library.
"The MindLink?" Jansson was astounded. Usually, he knew whenever Kyel connected with him. He couldn't believe that he had been so distracted he hadn't noticed. With a frown, he followed Kyel.
Five people waited in the library - Treyas, three adolescents and a black elf. The latter rose and gave a slight bow to Kyel, although the elder elf was his cousin, then prodded the two young men to do the same. Kyel acknowledged the bows with a smile.
"Elvy," he said softly. "I've told you before that bowing to me isn't necessary. You are blood-related, and Maslin and Wight are not elfin."
"I know, but I think it's good practice," Elvy returned. "Living at Mayfaire has afforded them many opportunities for proper conduct. And, besides, Grandfather Reyuann does expect it."
Jansson thought he detected just a trace of a grimace cross Kyel's face at the mention of his uncle. "Reyuann would," the bard muttered.
"Kyel, are you sure you should go alone?" Treyas asked. His mis-matched blue and green eyes held true concern, with none of the longing Jansson might have expected. Especially when this whole trip had been his idea in the first place.
"I will be fine, Treyas. I am not planning on going out of Herrick's coven. And I will have Galen with me."
Jansson frowned. Somehow that thought didn't comfort him. It wasn't because Galen was untrained. Quite the opposite. The Merian was Captain of the Guards at the palace in Mere Odain. His sword skills were outstanding. And he was a true and devoted friend. But he was Jodau, and Winze despised Jodau men almost as much as they despised elves.
"Kyel, are you sure Herrick's coven will be enough protection?" Treyas asked, voicing Jansson's next question.
Kyel sighed and studied them, before drawing them aside. "Your reticence is frightening the children. This plan was forged months ago," he said quietly. "The only thing that has changed is that I am going instead of you two. Has the danger in Winze suddenly become any different?"
Jansson and Treyas exchanged sullen glances. "No," they mumbled at the same time.
"And do either of you feel as if you are more capable at handling the Sorcery Web during the TravelSpell?" Kyel asked.
They shook their heads, frowning. Kyel eyed them with a quiet chuckle, then placed one of his hands on each of their shoulders. "I appreciate your concern, but I will be fine. I am not planning on an extended stay. Herrick has done his best to move word through the underground about the reason for my visit. If the children's families are not at the coven, we will return."
"Kyel," Jansson said softly, "will our MindLink be compromised?"
"Not if there is enough magic available in the coven. However, I wouldn't expect it to be elfin. I will most likely be forced to use sorcery."
"What does that mean to me?"
"Nothing really. You may not even notice. Now then," he steered them back toward the others, "does everyone have a pack?"
The three children nodded, and the lone girl pressed against Treyas. "I'll miss you," she whispered.
Treyas stroked her dark hair. "I'll miss you, too, Sylvie. But you won't be gone long and you may come back with a brother or sister." He obviously didn't want to say the rest - that she might want to stay in Winze with her family. He bent and kissed her forehead.
"Are we ready then?" Kyel asked.
The two boys hugged Elvy, their adoptive father, and stepped close to Kyel. Treyas reluctantly let Sylvie join them.
"You be careful," Jansson said, his gaze on Kyel. "And you Link me the minute you get to Winze."
Kyel smiled, touched Jansson's mind gently with his, and cast the TravelSpell. In seconds, he and the children were gone. A heavy silence fell on the room, and the three men looked at each other.
"Well," Treyas finally said. "I guess I'd better get back to Lidgerwood. Kyel left me a stack of work to finish."
Jansson nodded knowingly. "Busy work. He left me some, too."
"Well, he didn't leave me any," Elvy mumbled. "I think I'll take Tanler fishing. Jansson, will you..."
"I'll let you know the minute I hear from him," Jansson interrupted. "You, too, Trey."
Elvy sighed and left the library, but Treyas paused. "Did we make the right choice here, Jans?"
"Well, up until now, it seemed right," Jansson replied, sagging into a chair. He thought for a moment, then shook his head. "No, it is right. People have a right to know their past if they desire to. And parents have a right to know their children's past. I wish I had known about Xyza's. Not that it would have changed anything. Losing her would have hurt no matter what."
Treyas sat down in the opposite chair. "Has she been to see Kitiara at all?"
"I guess a few times. At least, that I know about. I'm sure Kitiara doesn't share everything with me. Gods! She doesn't even share everything with Brann. It drives him mad."
"Did something happen?"
Jansson glanced at him with a small grin. "You learning to be an empath, too?"
Treyas chuckled. "It doesn't take an empath to read you, Jans. You pretty much wear your emotions."
"So I've been told." Jansson rose and poured two glasses of wine. He handed one to Treyas and took a sip of his before reseating himself. "I'm not sure what to make of Brann and Kitiara. He keeps getting himself beat up defending her. I caught him pummeling Lord Bowle's son earlier."
"Why? What did they boy say?"
"Apparently he knew of Kitiara's past in Kartonn. He wanted to take her as a courtesan. I guess he thought he was being polite in asking Brann's permission first. What he got was a fat lip and black eye."
"Ouch." Treyas winced. "And Lord Bowle?"
Jansson frowned. "Kyel talked to him, smoothed things over for me. Again. Gods, Trey, I don't know what I'd do without him." He stared into his wine glass, watching the firelight dance in the red depths.
"He'll be all right," Treyas said.
"Hold on! He's Linking me already." Jansson sat back. ::Kyel? Where are you?::
::In Mere Odain at the palace. We are preparing to leave for Winze in just a few moments. I forgot to tell you something. Lord Bowle expressed an interest in your Bardic talents. I told him that you would perform for him later this evening.::
::You what? Kyel, the last thing I want to do is entertain that pompous, fat--::
::Jansson!:: The verbal reprimand was accompanied by a stinging mental slap, something Kyel had not done for years. ::I thought perhaps it would help ease the tensions brought by this afternoons...altercation. I would also suggest that you keep Brann in check and away from Master Floy.::
Jansson sighed, subdued. ::All right. I will.::
::Good. I'll Link you when we get to Winze. Q'egoshay, Jans.::
Jansson started, then smiled, at the elfin term of endearment. ::Q'egoshay, papay. And, please, be careful.::
::As always,:: Kyel returned and ended the Link.
"He's in Mere Odain," Jansson told Treyas. He drained his glass. "And he's promised Lord Bowle a Bardic presentation tonight." He rubbed at his eyes. "Gods! Just what I wanted to do!"
Treyas grinned. "Well, you could always toss in a little Bardic magic. Maybe a SleepSpell."
"Say!" Jansson looked at him, his mind working on that idea.
"No! Wait! I was only joking. Gods! If you did that and Kyel found out, it would be more than that slap you just got."
Jansson flushed. He'd forgotten how Treyas could sense magic. Getting punished at his age was one thing, but getting punished and having your best friend witness it was quite another. He gave Treyas a sour look.
"Well, I'll tell Kyel it was your idea," he mumbled, rising.
"You'll do no such thing!" Treyas laughed, also standing. "And if you do, I'll deny it vehemently." He clapped Jansson on the shoulder. "I'll see you later. Enjoy your concert."
Jansson grimaced and opened his mouth for a retort, but Treyas vanished. "All right!" he called to thin air. "Run and hide! Elves." He shook his head and went in search of a page.
When he found one, he instructed the boy to tell Lord Bowle that he would be performing for him later that evening. In truth, he wanted to get the presentation over with and go to bed, no matter how early it was. Still, he had some paperwork to finish up in regards to the trade agreement, and turned his steps toward his study.
The two hours flew by, and with a heavy sigh, Jansson entered the music hall and stopped in surprise. His wife Zira was there, along with his eldest Chaia, Willow, and three of Kyel's children. Zira smiled and rose to greet him with a kiss.
"We didn't want ye to perform for only one," she said.
Jansson grinned, his love for her overflowing. He took his place up front and picked up his flute, the one Zira had given him so long ago. She turned to greet Lord Bowle as he was escorted into the room by the page. Without further words, Jansson put the ebonywood instrument to his lips and began to play, wondering where Floy was.
Much as he had dreaded the presentation, once the music began, he became lost in its mystical spell. He fell into the usual dreamlike state, and played piece after piece. Sometime during his concert, he noticed Floy slip into the room, but time was lost on him. He played each note as if it was an exquisite silver gift that he bestowed upon his audience, who sat in rapture. At last, Lord Bowle rose, his clapping loud and intrusive in the delicate web Jansson had created, but none-too-subtly indicating he had brought an end to the concert he had requested.
Jansson looked up at him, startled.
"Magnificent!" the Lord cried. "Absolutely splendid! I have never heard a flute played with such perfection, such grace, such beauty! You are definitely a Bard, King Jansson. A Bard of the highest rank."
Jansson blushed at the gushing compliments, not so much from the words themselves, but from the lack of true emotion his empathy picked up. He stood, his body stiff from sitting so long. "I'm glad you enjoyed it, Lord Bowle," he said, then glanced up as the clock struck midnight. No wonder the Lord had called a close to the presentation! He turned contrite eyes on the man. "I hadn't realized it was so late! My apologies. You must be exhausted. Allow me to have my page escort you to your room."
"Thank you, Your Majesty. And again, it was magnificent! Truly magnificent!"
Jansson smiled, shot a quick glance at Zira, then summoned a page. The little boy arrived half asleep, and bowed deeply, nearly tumbling over.
"Show Lord Bowle and his son to their quarters," Jansson instructed, then whispered, "then you get to bed, as well. And start your morning two hours later than usual."
The boy nodded, his eyes showing his appreciation, then led the Lord and Floy away. When they were well gone, Jansson turned to his family.
"Thank you for being here. I'm sorry I kept you all so late. Someone should have cut me off."
"Why, Jans?" Zira purred, slipping her arms about his waist. "Ye're music is a great gift. One that should be shared."
Jansson hugged her to him, then looked at the others. "Well, off to bed, all of you!" he snapped teasingly. "Go on."
They rose and filed out, yawning. Willow stopped to pat his shoulder.
"Nicely played, Bard. Kyel would have been proud. Goodnight."
"Goodnight, Willow," Jansson mumbled absently. He was suddenly reminded that Kyel had not Linked him from Winze. He thought about asking Willow if she'd heard from him, then decided against it. There was no use worrying her. Besides, Kyel had probably tried and not been able to break through Jansson's BardicSpell. He would most likely try again. Jansson moved away from Zira to repack the flute in its protective case. She followed him and ran one finger along the fine leather.
"It reminds me of the night we met," she said softly. "The night ye played and captivated my entire clan." She brought her gaze up to meet his. "I loved ye the moment I saw ye, Jans. And there's been no turning back in all these years. I love ye now more than ever, and my love will only grow stronger in the years to come."
Jansson pulled her into his arms, then kissed her long and gently. "My heart and soul are yours, Zira. They always have been." He moved to kiss her again, but at that moment, the page burst into the room, his eyes wide, his face flushed.
"M'Lord, Your Majesty!" he gasped, then gave a hurried, jerky bow. "M'Lord come quick! It's Prince Brann. He's been hurt!"