Crown Prince Treyas Merripen looked up from his paperwork with a smile. He beckoned the young elf into the room as he rose from behind his desk.
"I'm not interrupting anything am I?" the brown-skinned young man asked.
"Pepin, you are never an interruption," Treyas replied and embraced him warmly. "In fact, I'm glad you're here. I was finalizing our travel plans to Dalziel and I realized I never got your supply request. If you want to,"
"Papay," Pepin interrupted softly, "I'm not going."
Treyas looked at him in surprise and puzzlement. "What do you mean? Is something wrong? Is someone ill?"
"No, no. Everyone is fine," Pepin assured him.
"Then..." Treyas shrugged.
"It's not my place to go, Papay," Pepin said.
"Of course it is. You're in line to the throne."
"That's just the point," Pepin said with a sigh of exasperation. "I'm not. Not really."
Treyas' face grew firm. "Pepin, you're my son."
"Yes, by choice not by chance." Pepin took hold of his arm, his dark eyes searching Treyas' face. "You've been my father since I was seven years old. There's not a day that goes by that I don't thank you with all of my heart for adopting me. But you adopted me, Papay, not the elfin empire. I should not be in line to the throne. That right belongs to Vantann. He is your first-born son, not me."
Treyas stared at him in shock, then annoyance settled in his mis-matched blue and green eyes. "Who's been talking to you?"
"No one." Pepin released Treyas' arm and walked over to look out the tall, mullioned window. He could feel Treyas' gaze burning into his back.
"Then where did you come up with this idea?" Treyas asked. "Aelfdene and the elves accepted you as my son fifteen years ago, Pepin. They expect you to follow me. I expect you to follow me. What's happened that's changed that?"
Pepin hesitated, toying idly with the drapery pull. "Father, I have a legacy," he finally said. "A role to fill. But it's not in Aelfdene. You know that."
"I know that you're an honorary Prince of Mere Odain," Treyas said tightly, "and that you still oversee the DragonRiders there, but I was under the assumption that Faolan had filled the role you speak of."
Pepin closed his eyes, the chill in his father's voice eating at his heart. He took a deep breath, opened his eyes and turned to face Treyas. "I've taken the position back, Father," he said quietly. "I am now officially the DragonMaster of Mere Odain."
Treyas stared at him, stunned. "When?"
"Six months ago," Pepin replied. "On my twenty-third birthday."
"Six...why didn't you tell me?" Treyas exploded. "Was it supposed to be some sort of secret? Was I supposed to find out the day you left home? Gods, Pepin! I'm your father! Does being twenty-three relieve you of common courtesy? I should have been told, Pepin! No! Dammit! I should have been asked!" He jerked toward the door as a soft knock sounded. "What is it?" he snapped.
Druce Sinclair, Treyas' squire and SoulMate, stepped into the room, his dark eyes darting from Treyas to Pepin and back. "You wanted to know when Elek had arrived," he said. "He's downstairs with the children."
"Where, Druce?" Treyas demanded hotly. "Downstairs is a bit vague."
"In the kitchen," Druce answered slowly, then added, "He's sitting in the chair closest to the fireplace and has had three cookies and a half a glass of milk."
Treyas glared at him. "Don't patronize me," he seethed, then glanced at Pepin. "We're not through with this discussion, Pepin. Until we are, I forbid you to return to Mere Odain!" He strode from the room, angrily pushing past Druce.
Druce watched him storm down the circular stairway, then turned to Pepin. "What was that all about?"
Pepin shook his head and flung himself into a chair. "Nothing!"
"That was nothing? Come on, Pepin, what's going on? You and Treyas never fight."
Pepin rubbed wearily at his face, then looked up at Druce. "I've officially assumed my title as DragonMaster."
Druce's eyes went wide. "I see. When did this happen?"
"Six months ago. I know I should have told him then. I just couldn't. Half the house was sick with poujo, and Mamay and Papay,"
"You haven't told your mother?" Druce interrupted, aghast.
"Not yet," Pepin mumbled, picking at the green brocade on the chair arm.
"Coals, Pepin, and you think Treyas took it hard."
Pepin slouched further into the overstuffed chair. "I know, I know, but at least Mamay will understand." He surged to his feet to pace. "Gods, Druce! What is it with Papay and Mere Odain? Why does he go wild every time I mention it? You'd think he'd understand. I'm half Merian, my father was the DragonMaster. I'm his only son. It's my legacy, it's part of who I am. I can no more ignore that, than he can ignore his naiad half. Why does he make this so painful for me?"
Druce winced. "Because it's so painful for him." He touched Pepin's arm lightly, stopping his pacing. "He's been fighting against Mere Odain's pull on you for over fifteen years, Pepin. That's a long time. A long time to be waging a personal war only to find out he lost it six months ago."
Pepin regarded him with a frown. "I really messed this up, didn't I?" He sagged back into the chair.
"Well, waiting to spring it on him the night before you're supposed to leave on a diplomatic visit probably wasn't the wisest course of action," Druce admitted, sitting in the chair next to him. "Why didn't you just wait until you got back?"
"I couldn't," Pepin replied. "I'm not going."
Druce sighed in amazement. "This just gets better and better. Why aren't you going?"
"Because, like I told Papay, it should be Vantann going, not me. Vantann is related by blood. The lineage runs through him and Thomlin, not me. And besides," Pepin took a deep breath, "Queen El'leigh has ordered Dragon placement in Akuri Kelta. They leave in two days. I'm the overseer."
Druce sat back with a groan. "Oh, gods, Pepin." He was quiet for a long moment.
Pepin spoke up. "You being a Merian, I thought you'd understand."
"Being a Merian, I do understand. The Akuri can't be given any slack. We've all seen what they're capable of. But, being your father's SoulMate, I know how he's going to take this."
"Uncle Druce," Pepin said, sitting forward, his voice low, "he doesn't have to know. At least, not until he gets back from Dalziel. I would prefer it that way."
"Pepin, I can't keep this from him," Druce replied in astonishment.
Pepin hesitated. "I could order you to," he said slowly.
Druce stiffened. "I suppose you could. I would hope that you wouldn't."
Pepin eyed him steadily. "Will you keep quiet?"
Druce returned the gaze defiantly. "No."
Pepin clenched his jaw and rose. "Then consider it an order, Druce. Papay is to know nothing about this until I tell him."
Druce also rose, his voice cold. "Consider it done, Prince Pepin. I only hope you know what you're doing."
Pepin watched him leave, then exhaled sharply. This had not gone the way he'd intended. Not only was Treyas furious with him, Druce was as well. And since Treyas had forbidden him to go to Mere Odain, he would have to go against his father's wishes to follow Queen El'leigh's command. That is, if he wanted to truly be the DragonMaster of Mere Odain in more than just title.
He left the study and began the walk back to his living quarters. The Elfin Council Chambers had been his home for sixteen years, ever since Treyas had plucked him out of Sarben's clan to assist in finding King Jansson van Tannen. Pepin had had more than one opportunity to claim his position as DragonMaster and always he had turned it down. He was comfortable with his elfin half, though even that was not pure. He was a brownling. His mother had been a black elf, his father a white Merian. Sarben's clan had been the only place he was accepted until Treyas had brought him to Aelfdene Valley. For a while, even that was hard.
Treyas, being the true heir to the Crown, had appointed Kyel Sylvain, King of the Black Elves, to rule over black and white elf alike. Since Kyel's wife, Willow, was a white elf, it didn't take long for other brownlings to appear. Then, Treyas had relocated Sarben's entire clan of brownlings to Aelfdene Valley, ensuring that Pepin would never be considered an outcast again.
So, what am I doing, Pepin thought. Why am I going against the one man who has made my life complete? He sighed and opened the door to his and Nila's solar. That was the problem. His life wasn't complete. True, he was an honorary Prince of Mere Odain and as such, could still be involved with his beloved dragons. But it wasn't enough. His legacy called to him, begged him, seduced him. He was meant to be the DragonMaster. It had ceased to be a choice. It was a command, given to him by a power he didn't understand and couldn't ignore, though he had valiantly tried for many long years.
He collapsed on the settee, lay back and stared at the ceiling. And what of his elfin allegiance? What of the fact that he had pledged his loyalty to King Sylvain and the elfin crown? How did one go about changing that allegiance? Did he really want to? Or had he already done so when he had accepted his Merian title? Gods! Why did everything have to be so complicated?
"Papay!" A sweet, little voice reached him and he sat up with a smile. His five-year-old daughter, Velouette, took the last stair, wriggled free of her mother's hand and raced to the settee. Pepin swept her up in a hug and showered her with kisses, until she was giggling happily.
"How did it go?" Nila asked, approaching him.
Pepin looked up at the black elfin beauty. "Not well. Papay was furious. He forbade me to go to Mere Odain."
Nila sat down beside him and handed Velouette a silver plated brush. The little girl squealed with delight and immediately stood behind Pepin to brush at his dark shoulder length curls.
"Did you tell him about El'leigh's orders?" Nila asked.
"No." Pepin winced as Velouette caught a snarl and yanked it free. "The way he went off, I didn't dare. I'll just have to wait until he gets back from Dalziel. Hopefully, I'll be back before then anyway."
Nila took his hand and kissed it. "I wish you weren't going at all," she murmured.
Pepin gave a small smile, looking into her blue eyes. "So do I, Nila, but if I'm going to be the DragonMaster, I need to be with my dragons."
"I know," Nila replied quietly.
Pepin kissed her gently. "I wish Papay understood as well as you do."
Nila smiled wryly. "I don't know that I do understand, Pepin. I only know what makes you happy. Being with your dragons makes you happy. Doing what was born into you makes you happy. Being DragonMaster of Mere Odain makes you happy. I know it, but I don't really understand it."
Pepin chuckled and drew her into his arms. He laid one hand on her belly. "Just as I know there's a child here, though I don't understand the miracle of its growth. Some things just are, Nila. Maybe they can't be explained. Maybe if we explain them, we take away their mysterious beauty."
Nila smiled. "You should have been a bard, Pepin."
He chuckled grimly. "My life surely would have been less complicated if I had. Ouch!" He cringed, then reached back and snagged Velouette, hauling her onto his lap. "Leave some hair there, you," he teased. "What are you still doing awake anyway, miss?" He tickled her gently.
She giggled and flopped backward onto Nila's lap, then turned her head and kissed Nila's protruding stomach. "Sister," she said.
Nila laughed. "Now there's a mystery for you. She takes turns referring to the baby as sister or brother."
"So? She's guessing."
"No, no. I mean, she never makes a mistake. It's always sister, then brother, then sister and so forth. I've been writing it down out of curiosity. She hasn't made a mistake since I started keeping track. How does she do that?"
Pepin shrugged. "Maybe it's twins. After all, my mother was a twin."
"Don't remind me," Nila said with a shudder. "Your mother's twin could have easily substantiated Winze's belief in the demon twin. Come on, Velouette, it's time for bed. Are you coming up, Pepin?"
"In a bit."
"Don't be long," Nila said, scooping Velouette into her arms. "I'm sure to have nightmares now." She kissed him lightly and went up the stairs to the bedroom.
Pepin sighed. He needed to talk to Treyas.
* * *
"How could he do this?" Treyas raged, pacing furiously. "How could Pepin do this to me?"
"I don't think he intended to do anything to you," Cynthe answered softly.
Treyas turned to look at his wife, who was perched on the side of the bed, one hand gripping a bed poster. Though her words were calm, her rigidity belied her emotions. "How can you take this so lightly?" Treyas cried. "Pepin has taken on the role of DragonMaster! Do you know what that means? It means he's transferred his allegiance from Kyel to El'leigh. It means his loyalties now lie with Mere Odain and not Aelfdene. It means..." he paused, taking a deep breath, "it means, I've lost him to his past."
Cynthe rose, walked to him and took him into her arms. "Myshay, you haven't lost Pepin. You could never lose Pepin. He's your son."
Treyas looked at her sadly, then pushed away to go stand before the window. He stared out at the quiet gardens, the stables, the dark woods beyond. This was his home, had been for over fifteen years, since he was seventeen years old. His gaze lifted to the western skies. The sun had already set in Bailiwycke, filling the coastal skies with hues of red, gold, orange, touching the silvery water of the cove outside of Ravenscroft. Treyas missed seeing that, missed Ravenscroft and the carefree days of his first fourteen years. The days before he had discovered who he was, who his father was, what his future entailed. Crown Prince to the Elfin Empire. It was a long way from fisherman's apprentice.
He snorted softly. As if he had ever really been Quinlin Thomarius' apprentice. Quinlin was a member of the Elfin Royal Guard, had been assigned to protect the little five-year-old prince, the prince hidden away from the eyes of the elfin royalty. That Quinlin had grown up in Ravenscroft and knew about fishing was a bonus. But while he was a fisherman by choice and trade, Treyas was no more his apprentice than...than...he sighed heavily...then Pepin was an elfin prince. Just putting someone in a particular place and wishing a life for him, didn't always work out. Treyas was proof of that.
His father, Crown Prince Tehras Merripen, had tried. He had sequestered Treyas in Bailiwycke with his dear friend, Elek Beckering. Elek had been sworn to secrecy regarding Treyas' true identity, his heritage. As had Quinlin. Tehras had wanted Treyas to grow up free, away from the pressures and constraints of royal life. For fourteen years he had. Fourteen, long, wonderful years.
Until the Triskelion had resurfaced, plunging Treyas into a nightmare years in the making. His peaceful existence had been shattered violently and permanently. He had witnessed horrors he had never dreamed possible. He had been involved in desperate life or death decisions. He had seen friends die, and he had killed. He shuddered now, then started when Cynthe laid her hand on his shoulder. "I wanted to protect him, Cynthe," he murmured. "I wanted to protect Pepin just as my father wanted to protect me. But we can't change who we are, can we? Our past finds us and claims us. It claimed me and now it claims my Pepin. Gods, Cynthe, will the pain of my life never end?"
She leaned her chin on his shoulder. "Has it all been pain, myshay? Has no good come of it?"
Treyas gave a small smile, breathing in her sweet scent. He turned and took his wife into his arms. Her waist-length blond hair hung loose and caressed his hands and arms as he held her. "You're right, myshay. As usual. I have you and the children. I have friends who are like brothers. I have people around the world whom I can turn to for help and advice. None of this would be mine if I wasn't who I am." He kissed her gently. "I should be proud of Pepin. My son, the DragonMaster of Mere Odain. Gods! Who would have thought that such a tiny little boy would grow to command a legion of dragons?" He looked into Cynthe's violet eyes, then kissed her again, long and passionately. "I need to go talk to Pepin," he said when they'd parted.
Cynthe smiled and ran her finger down his cheek to his lips. "After that kiss, I hope you won't be long."
Treyas smiled, kissed her finger and promised.
He walked steadily, resolutely toward Pepin's living quarters, taking the long way around to gather his thoughts. First, he thought, I'll apologize. I'll apologize for treating him like a child. He's a man now, a husband, a father himself. I can't forbid him to do anything.
His footsteps faltered outside a guestroom solar as a hoot of laughter reached him. It was quickly followed by hasty shushings. Treyas glanced at the hall clock. Eleven. Too late for the younger children to be awake. He pushed open the doors to the guest solar, and froze.
Vantann and Thomlin, his fifteen-year-old twins, shot to their feet with a collective gasp. They were dressed only in leggings, their chest and feet bare. Their companions, Rusulka and Ketura, also twins at sixteen, were clothed only in their linen undershirts and hose. A small pile of clothing lay nearby and Treyas' gaze flicked to it briefly before his anger exploded. "What in Tor's hell is going on?" he roared.
"P...papay, we...we..." Vantann stammered, his face going red.
Treyas stormed into the room, snatched up Vantann's tunic and flung it at him. Thomlin hastily grabbed his own and yanked it on. "We were playing Queen's Takeoff," he mumbled, then added quickly, "but we weren't going to take anything else off! Honest!"
"Where," Treyas said, trying to control his anger, "did you learn how to play that game?"
The twins exchanged quick, frightened glances, their blue eyes wide. Vantann swallowed hard. "From Grandpapay Elek."
Treyas stared at him, stunned. He didn't know whether to laugh or rant. His gaze swung to the girls, who had not moved. "Get your things," he said tightly, "and get home. I will discuss this with Quinlin in the morning." They scrambled to obey, fairly flying past him toward the study and the TravelPortal.
"They told Uncle Quinlin they were staying here tonight," Thomlin said, then withered under Treyas' gaze. "But I guess they'd better not."
"Good guess," Treyas replied. He regarded them both for a long moment, then drew a deep breath. "Go to your rooms. You'll be leaving with me tomorrow for Dalziel."
"Dalziel?" Vantann repeated. "I thought Pepin was going."
"There's been a change of plans," Treyas retorted sharply. "Now, go to your rooms!"
They sidled past him and bolted for the door and the relative safety of the hallway. Treyas picked up the deck of playing cards, took a deep, calming breath and went to find Pepin. He met his son just a few steps outside of the young man's solar.
Pepin stopped short, obviously reading Treyas' angry face as being directed at him. "I thought we could talk," he said. "But I see you're still angry."
"No, Pepin," Treyas replied. "I'm not angry with you. Not now. In fact, I was on my way to see you. You're right. We need to talk."
Pepin nodded and led the way back to his solar. Treyas sat down in a soft, overstuffed chair before the hearth and looked absently at the cards in his hand.
"What's that?" Pepin asked, nodded his head at the cards.
"What? Oh." Treyas suddenly chuckled and looked up at Pepin. "I just caught Vans and Thoms playing Queen's Takeoff in the guest solar with Rusulka and Ketura." He shook his head.
Pepin smiled. "I'll bet Grandpapay Elek taught them." He laughed at Treyas' look of astonishment and sat down in the chair opposite Treyas. "He taught me how to play it, too, when I was fifteen. He claims it's a great icebreaker with the girls."
"Gods," Treyas mumbled. "If you only knew how protective, moral and...and boring he was when I was growing up!" He shook his head again and dropped the cards on the table between the two chairs. "Anyway, I'm not here to discuss my guardian's morals or lack thereof. I want to apologize, Pepin. I behaved very badly this evening. I treated you as if you were a child, not a man. You're at the age where you need to make your own decisions. I need to respect those decisions no matter how I feel about them personally. Will you forgive me?"
Pepin sighed and rose. "There's nothing to forgive, Papay. I sort of sprang this on you. I should have told you six months ago. I was wrong not to."
"I can fully understand why you didn't," Treyas told him with a grimace. "I'm sorry, Pepi. I'm sorry that you feared my reaction enough that I couldn't be a witness to your title ceremony." He rose, reached out and drew Pepin into an embrace. "I'm proud of you, Pepin. I really am."
"Thank you, Papay," Pepin said quietly. "That means a lot to me."
Treyas studied him for a moment longer, then turned and re-claimed the playing cards. On impulse he handed them to Pepin. "Let Velouette play with them." He paused, his hand gripping one end of the deck, Pepin's the other. "Pepin, can you postpone your move to Mere Odain until I get back from Dalziel? I just want to be here."
Pepin smiled sadly. "Of course."
Treyas released the cards and went to the door, Pepin trailing. "I've decided to take both Vantann and Thomlin with me to Dalziel," Treyas said. "It's apparent I need to get them away from the girls for awhile."
Pepin chuckled lightly. "Papay, you should know better. If they're truly SoulMates, time and distance won't matter."
"Maybe not," Treyas agreed, "but I'm not letting them marry before they're twenty. I'm just not up to it. Goodnight, Pepin."
Treyas paused outside the door. There had been something else, something he felt that Pepin wanted to share, but hadn't. He wondered if he should press the matter, then sighed, shook his head and shuffled down the hallway.