In This Kingdom by the Sea by Icy Snow Blackstone

In This Kingdom By The Sea (Three Moon Series Book 3) by Icy Snow Blackstone

In This Kingdom By The Sea (Three Moon Series Book 3) by Icy Snow Blackstone

$5.99
With the aid of his wife, his best friend, and his younger brother, Darien begins the not-so-subtle and sometimes shocking changes to his world. More info →

Chapter One

Carefully, the young boy knocked on the ironwood paneling. When a call to enter came from inside, he opened the door but instead of going in, simply stood there.

“You wished to see me, Uncle?” It was asked as if half-hopeful he’d misunderstood the message the page had brought him.

For a moment, the man seated at the desk stared at him, not answering. Instead, he considered what a handsome child the boy was. Tall for his age, with wheat-colored ringlets and fair skin, golden-eyed, like most of his family, a child he was proud to have a part in rearing.

“Yes, Your Majesty. Come in. I’d like to speak with you.”

Darien-Marcus san Gene, Lord Lindenscraig, most noble Crown Prince of Arcanis, hesitated, then came into the room, closing the door behind him.

“If it’s about Aunt Alyce’s cat,” he began. “I didn’t know the animal couldn’t swim, but I jumped into the pond and pulled it out. Took it to my room and dried it with the blower in my sonic shower. And I called in the Royal Veterinarian. He said it’s fine.” He paused a moment, then added, “Aunt Alyce says she isn’t angry.”

“And neither am I,” Tyron Opaxa assured him. “Though I do hope you’ll show more foresight in the future and research whether an animal can instinctively swim or not before again doing such a thing.” As the boy nodded earnestly, he went on, “It isn’t about my wife’s cat, Darien.”

“Then what is it? I haven’t done anything else naughty lately.” He paused, thought, then said, “Not that I can remember, anyway.”

That brought a smiling shake of Lord Summerlee’s equally blond head. “I’ve someone I want you to meet. A young lady.”

“Are we going to the Pleasure Dome, then?”

The boy’s reply was so unexpected Opaxa stared at him. Then he was swept back a year to another time he’d spoken that same sentence to his young prince.

~*~

At the ages of nine and six, Darien-Marcus and his younger brother, Daneel, were orphaned when their father and mother were killed in a freak hunting accident. While the planet mourned, there was a frantic meeting of His Late Majesty’s advisors over what to do with the children. Since their parents had the misfortunate to have no siblings also, it was expected one of their great-great-aunts or uncles would become their guardians, and therefore Regent of Arcanis until Darien-Marcus achieved his majority. However, those nobles were too lazy to consider taking in more children. Thus, the two princes became wards of the Tripod, the three men chosen as advisors to the Margrave.

There had once been twelve men who guided and counseled their ruler. At that time called the Council of Elders, they grew too powerful. Eventually, because of their lust for power and its accompanying treachery and deceit, a margrave declared their authority null and void, disbanding the Council. In the aftermath, there was war and following that, pestilence decimated the planet. Once the kingdom was restored, the san Genes, a different off-shoot of the Royal family, gained the throne and the new margrave selected three men, not so much to guide as to be sounding boards for his solutions to the galaxy’s problems. They came to be known as the Tripod.

Under one name or another, the same family had ruled for three thousand years. Occasionally, intermarriage again placed a kan Ingan on the throne but presently the san Genes, in the form of this orphaned child, was again the ruler.

The current members of the Tripod had been selected by Darien-Marcus’ father, and were his boyhood friends. Because they were also relatively young, and only one at that time was married, it was decided he would act as father-figure to the youngsters while the others provided support. So, Tyron Opaxa, Lord Summerlee, was the fortunate one, or sometimes unfortunate he felt when he observed the young princes’ misconduct, became surrogate parent to his future sovereign and his sovereign’s brother.

Closing his own home in the country, he moved himself and his wife into the palace, with rooms next to the margrave’s own chambers. He placed the two princes together so they kept each other company. He hired nurses, governesses, and tutors. He and his wife offered emotional security, getting up in the night to soothe and calm nightmares when Darien and Daneel called for their lost parents and again demanded to know why the gods had taken them. They also provided pseudo-siblings in the form of their own sons and daughters.

It was to Tyron and Lady Alyce’s credit that each child grew up as well-adjusted and emotionally sound as he had, especially Darien-Marcus. He was a polite child but a mischievous one, and had formed a particularly close bond with Orion, Tyron’s eldest son who was just a little older. The two were usually ringleaders in whatever pranks were played out in the palace.

As the Margrave’s twelfth birthday approached, Tyron decided it was time he and his sovereign had a talk. More specifically, The Talk, given to each child when he reached what the Arcanians considered the Age of Moral Reasoning. This wasn’t to be confused with being declared an adult, however, for an Arcanian male wasn’t allowed to vote, handle his own affairs, or do anything of a business or political nature until the age of twenty-one. For a Royal, there were other requirements going along with this approaching moment. The prince had been given an exhausting physical examination involving DNA cataloguing, fertility testing, and a battery of tests to determine both his mental and physical ability to rule and continue the san Gene line. While his tutors and the Military Academy counseling staff certified Darien was mentally and emotionally fit, the Royal Physician declared the boy capable from a physical standpoint. He’d also offered to attend when Tyron gave him The Talk, supplying diagrams and graphics. Tyron, having already delivered the same speech and discussion to his own eldest, and remembering how embarrassed the event had been for himself, and Orion’s own reaction, declined.

He decided he’d handle it alone. For his future sovereign’s well-being, as well as his own comfort, he felt it better to have as few spectators around as possible…and then he’d repeat the process when young Daneel got a little older. So, he called Darien-Marcus into the room designated as his study for as long as he continued to live in the palace.

“Yes, Uncle?” The child arrived a little cautiously, just as he would a year later.

“Come in, Darien. Sit down.” Tyron always thought it ironic he should be giving his prince orders instead of the other way around, that he was actually allowed to bestow corporal punishment in the form of canings on the royal backside when the boy disobeyed. Not that all the things Darien-Marcus did were deserving of beatings, and Tyron was remarkably lenient. However, once in a while, they had to be done to drive home that a sovereign shouldn’t act in certain ways. Tyron was selective in his punishments and he carried them out personally, delegating the acts to no one, deciding if his prince chose to hold a grudge afterward, it would be only for himself. Remarkably, Darien-Marcus never did. “I think it’s time you and I had a talk.”

“What about?” he asked cautiously.

“About you.”

“Have I done something wrong?” He could almost see the boy going over his behavior of the past week, checking for any infraction of the rules set up for him. If the way he relaxed was any indication, he found nothing.

“No, and I wish to make certain that never happens.”

“I don’t understand.” The wrinkling of that smooth brow said clearly he really didn’t.

“Darien, you’re going to be twelve soon.” Tyron decided to get straight to the point. “Do you know what that means?”

“That I’ll have a party?” The child’s face held delight. “Like I had last year and the year before that?” In earlier times, Arcanian never celebrated the anniversary of one’s birth. Later, after association with Terra, they embraced that observation upon learning how Terrans did so.

“Something more serious.” Briefly, Tyron felt a twinge of pity for his young sovereign. Oh my little Lord, after this year, parties, or any invited gathering, will no longer be entertaining to you. After this, they’ll be to impress, influence, gain people to your side, and ferret out your enemies. “You’re becoming a young man, and in a few months the Tripod will declare your right to the Throne and we’ll attend your coronation. In a few years more, you’ll be taking your place there without me standing beside you.”

“I-I don’t think I’m quite ready for that, Uncle.” Darien actually looked frightened at the idea. “I’ll always need you to guide me.”

“I thank you for that flattery, Your Majesty, but…” Seeing they were getting off the subject, he tried again. “You’re growing up, Darien. Haven’t you felt different lately?”

“Different?” The wide-eyed stare told him nothing.

“Yes.” This continued inability to understand was beginning to grate on Tyron’s nerves. He was already nervous about this meeting, had been the same with his own son, still feeling he’d done rather badly in that encounter. Since this boy was his future ruler, he couldn’t afford to make a mistake in what he said. “In the way you feel about certain things?”

“What things?”

“Well…” At this point, Tyron was beginning to wonder if the prince was toying with him and mentally laughing at his visible concern. Then, he dismissed that suspicion. Surely the child isn’t that devious yet. “Girls, for instance?”

“What about them?”

“Well, then…” Tyron paused, grasping at anything to breech the subject. “Dreams…have you had odd dreams, perhaps?”

“Oh.” Darien looked away, fair cheeks flushing. Aha, thought Tyron. At last a reaction, and if he was correct, the right reaction. “Now that you mention it…”

Before he realized it, the boy launched into a description of the dream he’d had the night before, a rambling narrative of finding himself on a beach, naked, while equally naked and very full-breasted females romped in the surf, splashing out of it to run to him and rub their bosoms against his body, then dash away when he reached for them. As Tyron sat there, startled by the flood he’d unleashed with his question, Darien proceeded to catalogue and enumerate the other dreams he’d had over the past year, all erotic, some very wet, others barely arousing, but all confusing to the youngster.

When he paused for breath, Tyron asked a little weakly, “When did you started having these dreams?”

“About a year ago,” Darien answered promptly. He thought a moment. “Just before my eleventh birthday.”

With that statement, Tyron realized the talk he’d decided to have with the prince was long overdue, and should’ve been given to him before his last birthday, in fact. Thinking back on it later when reporting to the others, he remarked how he wished he could have hindsight before he needed it instead of afterward, for now he remembered he’d observed his future monarch watching the maids and serving women as they bustled through the palace going about their chores. How, several times, where he’d once been quiet and attentive during balls or pageants he had to attend, the boy straightened suddenly in his chair, crossing his legs, and looking distressed, and on one or two occasions, actually asked to be dismissed, almost running to the nearest sanitary room. Each time, there had been a particularly lovely young woman somewhere nearby.

“Is something wrong with me, Uncle Tyron?” The plaintive question brought him out of his thoughts. “A-am I ill?”

“Not at all, sire,” he assured the boy. “In fact, I’m in possession of information which it seems you need.”

“Really?” Darien appeared delighted at this news, then frowned as if expecting some joke. “What kind of information?”

Instead of answering, Tyron asked a question of his own. “Do you know what a bastard is, sire?”

“Certainly.” Closing his eyes, Darien recited the definition as given in the Royal Libarian’s Dictionary of the Arcanian Language. “Bastard…someone born of parents not married to each other…” He opened his eyes. “What does that have to do with my dreams?”

“A good deal.” So Tyron told his prince of the way of men with women, and how

it was an unwritten law within the Royal family that neither kan Ingans nor san Genes sired bastards, and what one must do to make certain that law was kept. Darien-Marcus listened attentively, eyes wide and still innocent, becoming disbelieving as he continued.

He didn’t say a word until Tyron came to the description of the actual act itself and then, he interrupted timidly, “But…that’s the way the horses and cows and sheep do it.”

“Yes,” Tyron agreed, a little startled before remembering that the boy, as well as his own sons, had the run of the stables as well as the Royal pastures, and had probably witnessed the sight of animals mating. “That’s correct.”

“B-but we’re people.” Darien plainly didn’t want to believe what he’d heard. “That’s disgusting.”

“I understand you might think that,” Tyron said it gently, wondering if it was simply the boy’s nature making him react so. In contrast, Orion had been fairly overflowing with questions. “Actually, it can be very pleasant.”

“If you say so, sir.” Plainly Darien didn’t believe it. He regarded Tyron solemnly, and His Lordship could almost see the questions forming in his brain. “Did my parents do that?”

“Yes.” What else could he say?

“And you and Aunt Alyce?” Darien persisted.

For a moment, Tyron almost told him that was none of his business. Then he reminded himself he’d promised to teach his prince and guide him, and answer honestly any question the boy asked about any aspect of life. He set aside his own personal privacy and did just that. “Yes, Darien, that’s correct.”

“Naked?”

Taking a deep breath, Tyron nodded.

The boy thought about that. “And she likes it?”

Wondering exactly how far to go before he refused to answer, Tyron once more nodded.

“And that’s why I have so many foster brothers and sisters?”

“Yes.”

“When you had as many as you wanted, you didn’t do it anymore?”

“It isn’t that simple.” That question made Tyron nearly laugh. “Sometimes one must try a long time before a child’s created.”

“I see.” Darien was frowning as if in deep thought and Tyron wondered exactly what it was he saw. “So you do that,” it appeared he was having difficulty knowing exactly how to refer to the act. “And keep on until you have enough children and then you stop.” He shook his head. “I imagine Aunt Alyce got very tired, didn’t she?”

That did make Tyron laugh. He couldn’t help it. Alyce got tired all right, exhausted sometimes in fact, but it was because they loved each other so much their lovemaking was very vigorous. He wasn’t about to say that to an 11-year-old, though.

“It’s not just a physical act, Darien.” Tyron hadn’t gone into this much detail with Orion.

The boy had immediately asked for instruction and technique, appearing eager to get to his own initiation. “It’s a way to show the woman you love exactly how you feel about her, by joining with her in the closest way possible, both physically and emotionally. I know this is all difficult to comprehend right now, but as you get older, it’ll become clearer.” I hope.

Tyron sincerely prayed he wasn’t confusing the boy in a way that would cause him to grow up with a warped view of sex and love.

“Will I like it, too? When I get old enough?”

At last, the opening he was waiting for, and also the decision he’d made…that his sovereign was more than ready for his sexual initiation, even if it was a year earlier than expected.

In spite of that, he’d always questioned this part of a boy’s evolution into manhood. Though he himself had gone through the same thing when he reached The Age, Tyron had expressed doubt when his eldest son turned thirteen, just as he did now. He knew Terrans descried the practice and looked down on Arcanians for following it, which was laughable coming from a species considered one of the most sexually-free in the universe. Still, they didn’t pack their sons off to brothels when they became thirteen.

It was the acceptable practice on Arcanis, however. It was also the duty of the oldest member of the Tripod and before that the Elder of the Council, to make certain the margrave was indoctrinated into the physical aspects of life at that age, and by an expert, thereby securing an outlet for sexual energy before marriage and in the event the wife eventually chosen for him proved not to love him or he found he didn’t really care for her except as a producer of royal heirs.

Tyron really had no choice.

“You’re old enough now, Darien, and that’s what I wanted to speak to you about today. Sometimes a man, especially a young, unmarried man, needs physical release without love or any commitment involved, and that can make problems, so…”

“That’s where my family’s law comes in,” the boy guessed, wisely. He shrugged. “I suppose I must wait until I’m wed to grant myself that pleasure.” Tyron thought he looked a little relieved at that prospect and his stressing the word pleasure sounded a little ironic.

“Not necessarily. I’ve someone I wish you to meet.”

“Oh?” Darien perked up. “Who?”

“A young woman.”

And he’d taken the boy to the Pleasure Dome. On the way, he explained why they were going there and what the person they were going to see would do.

Darien listened intently and appeared excited by the prospect but Tyron still wasn’t certain the child…he still thought of the boy as a child…understood the exact nature of the visit. He seemed to be treating the whole thing as some kind of field trip, like a visit to the Aljansur City zoo or one of the museums.

The Pleasure Dome on Arcanis was the largest establishment of its kind in the capitol, owned and operated by the Crown. Royal suites were permanently kept for the margrave and his heir, as well as other royal relatives.

Set inside a gated park in the midst of a thick oak grove, the Dome rose out of

the foliage like a giant pearl. The roof of its many stories was covered with iridescent plates, catching and reflecting the light, making it look like an immense seashell.

Tyron managed to stifle a smile as he saw the awe on his young ruler’s face at being inside a place he’d only viewed from the distance of Aljansur Palace’s windows or when they rode into the city.

When Darien met the girl, brought in by the manageress and introduced by reciting her resume, he was polite, and well-mannered. Just as he’d been taught, he took her hand, bowing over it, unconsciously honoring her by performing the proper greeting of a young gentleman with an unmarried lady of noble birth. They chatted for a bit. She told him her name and her age. She was older than Darien by several years. Darien responded with information about himself. Then, she took his hand, and tugged on it gently, pulling him away from Tyron and her employer toward a door at the far end of the room.

“Would you like to go to bed now?”

Darien went with her eagerly.

When Tyron vacillated between leaving the two alone and wondering if he should stay to perhaps coach his sovereign through his first sexual venture, the boy said, without looking back, and with the first hint of royal command Tyron had ever heard from him, “You’re dismissed, Lord Summerlee. I believe I can handle this by myself.”

Speechless, Tyron bowed and walked out with the manageress. Nevertheless, for two hours, he paced anxiously outside the door.

When the doors opened and a smiling Prince walked out, all the boy said was, “That was fun. May I come back tomorrow?”

He’d been going there ever since, having officially made the girl his mistress with his fifth visit.

~*~

Now, Tyron looked at him and smiled. “We won’t be going to the Pleasure Dome this time. The young lady I wish you to meet is of the nobility.”

“Oh.” Darien looked disappointed. “Will it take long? Orion and I are to have a mallowick game and it starts in an hour.”

The game was the last in the current tournament. Mallowick was a game of skill as well as endurance, the players balancing on twenty-one-meter long anti-gravity sleds guided by shifting body weight. They had to keep the sleds aloft, not collide with other players, and intercept a mercury-filled ball, striking it and sending it through the goal-loop. The mercury’s unsteadiness, making the ball dart and spin and change direction, was what made the game so exciting. Darien had proven to be an exceptional player, and if his team won today, they’d be this year’s champions.

“You may have to miss your game,” he was told. At his grimace of disappointment, Tyron cautioned, “Remember what I’ve taught you about duty?”

Sometimes a ruler must do things he doesn’t wish to do because it’s his duty,” the boy quoted, adding, “Yes, sir.”

“Then shall we go?” Tyron stood and came around the desk.

“I suppose.” Darien sounded anything but enthusiastic, wanting to add, Do I have a choice?

~*~

The Council Chambers were in the castle adjacent to the palace. Originally built to house the margrave and his soldiers, the castle now held the government offices…the Tripod’s meeting rooms, communications center complete with equipment to broadcast news to the entire planet as well as satellite-relay throughout the system. It also contained the Department of Justice, the Department of Security, the Tribunal court as well as the Tower where prisoners awaiting trial were housed, and underground passages leading to the palace and the barracks for use during winter when snows were so heavy the heated sidewalks couldn’t melt it.

Obediently walking beside his guardian, Darien didn’t speak as they went into the Chamber. Inside, there was a long table at which sat two men.

“Hello, Uncle Devon, Uncle Stacius.” The boy greeted the other members of the Tripod, secondary in seeing to his upbringing, and also designated his honorary uncles.

“Your Majesty,” one echoed the other as they rose and bowed.

“So, where is she?” Darien looked around impatiently, belatedly daring to speak his displeasure. “I hope this doesn’t take long. We’re in a tournament and if I don’t show up, we forfeit the game and the title. Why can’t I see her after the game, anyway?”

As Tyron started to answer, he interrupted, in a rare moment of rebellious rudeness, “Oh wait, I know…duty.”

Darien looked away from Lord Summerlee and saw, at the other end of the room, in front of the long windows, two people sitting in the group of chairs there. A man and a little girl.

“My Lord?” Tyron gestured, and the man got up. Taking the little girl’s hand, he pulled her from the chair. She got to her feet and walked beside him to where Darien and Lord Summerlee stood.

“Sire, this is Jantzen lo Reza, Giarl Alpheus.” Tyron introduced the man.

“Sire,” the man bowed. When Darien acknowledged it with one of his own, he looked at the little girl. “May I present my daughter, Ariadne?”

“My Lady Ariadne.” Darien bowed to her, taking the hand she offered him as she curtseyed.

For just a moment, Tyron felt that odd sensation Terrans called déjà vu, that he’d seen this scene before…his monarch taking a young girl’s hand and bowing over it. But this time the girl was a nobleman’s daughter, not a whore, and that made a difference.

She reacted more as a child then a noblewoman would, however. Looking up at him and then down at her hand, she giggled.

“What’s so funny?” Darien released her hand, brushing back his hair, which had fallen over his forehead as he dipped his head. He thought she was pretty, in a way. She was wearing a white ruffled dress, white stocking and slippers, and had bouncy blonde curls. Her hair was just a shade lighter than his own which probably meant she was a relative of some kind, but her eyes were blue so the relationship wasn’t very close.

You are.” She giggled again.

I am?” That made his color rise slightly, his fair cheeks reddening. I’m missing my game to be told I’m funny? He affected a bit of bluster and a slightly insulted air. “Where exactly am I funny?”

“Your hair tickled my hand.” She reached up and flicked a finger at one of the wheat-colored curls returning to hang over his forehead. There was a glint of a mischievous smile. She bit her lower lip. He saw she had a tooth missing, one of her front ones. Her words came out with a bit of a whistle.

“Oh.” He raked a hand through his hair. It straightened, then re-curled, falling over his left eye again. This time, he ignored it.

“Jantzen, may I speak to you a moment?” Tyron touched her father’s arm.

“Certainly, Your Lordship. I’ll be right back,” he told his daughter and she curtsied and looked back at Darien.

“Practice your conversational skills and keep Ariadne entertained while I speak to her father,” Tyron said.

For a moment, he thought the boy was going to protest. Darien wasn’t yet old enough to know many oaths or curses but he would’ve sworn he saw a Damn it hovering on the royal lips. Then, the prince bowed and turned obediently back to the girl.

The two men walked a few feet away, then turned and stood there watching them. At the table, the other Tripod members had reseated themselves and were also regarding the two children.

~*~

“I’m Darien,” he said after a long silence.

“I know.”

“How?”

“My father told me we were coming to meet the margrave, and then Lord Summerlee introduced us, so I guessed you must be the one I’m supposed to meet.”

“He didn’t say my name, though,” Darien pointed out. “So I might just be someone who works in the palace. A page, or a messenger boy.”

“A messenger boy they call Sire and bow to? Of course.” She smiled, teeth glinting around the missing one. “You’re Darien-Marcus san Gene, Lord Lindenscraig, Crown Prince of Arcanis.”

“All right,” he acknowledged. “So you know who I am, but I don’t know you, except your name. Tell me about Ariadne lo Reza.”

“Very well.” Raising her head, she began to recite in a singsong, “My name is Ariadne, Lady Ariadne. My father is Jantzen, fifteenth Lord Alpheus. I live in southern Francovia just near the Snow King Mountains. I’m ten.”

“I’m thirteen,” he told her. “That’s nearly a grown-up according to the law.” He wondered if he should mention the girl he had at the Pleasure Dome, which definitely signified he was an adult, then decided not to. “Uncle Tyron said I should entertain you, so what shall we talk about?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never spoken to a margrave before.”

“It’s just like speaking to anyone else, I imagine, except you have to curtsey and say, Your Majesty, more,” he explained, searching for some topic. “Technically, I’m not a margrave, not until I’m crowned, anyway. Right now, I’m just a prince.” His etiquette tutor had told him to ask about a person’s interests. Talking about something they knew always put them at ease, he said. “Do you like hunting?”

“Not really.” She grimaced. “I don’t like to kill things.”

“Oh.” Well, scratch that off the list then. Darien tried again. “How about sailing? I’ve my own boat. It’s anchored at the city marina in Jestey.”

“I’m afraid of water.” She shivered slightly, then went on as if defending her fear, “The ocean’s so big and deep, it’s scary.” Her blue eyes got round. “And there are

monsters…”

“Don’t be silly.” His laugh was scornful. “The Great Ocean doesn’t have anything in it bigger than a three-foot sunfish.”

“It doesn’t?” She looked slightly disappointed.

“So you don’t swim, then, I imagine.” He decided he’d like to see her in the water, her skin tinted a pale green by the ocean’s darkness, hair floating on its surface like seaweed. He imagined she’d look like a mermaid. That sent an odd little tingle through his belly and it shook him slightly because he’d only felt it before when he was with Mirelle, his mistress.

“No, but we couldn’t swim together anyway. That’s not allowed,” she reminded him.

“Hm. That’s a stupid law, I think.” He considered a moment. “Perhaps when I’m truly margrave, I’ll repeal it. Would you let me teach you to swim after I do? There’s a pool in the cadets’ barracks I’m allowed to use.” He leaned closer, whispering, “I could smuggle you in.”

She giggled again, but from the way her eyes brightened he thought she might agree to such an adventure. Darien wished that could happen. He envisioned himself and Ariadne tiptoeing down the stairs to the pool area, getting out of their clothes, and diving into the clear, warm water. A sudden frisson trickled along his spine. Then another thought intruded.

“How about riding? I’ve my own stable of horses.”

“I’ve never ridden a horse,” she apologized. “But I do have a pony.”

“Well, that’s almost the same thing,” he allowed.

~*~

“Look at them,” Jantzen said it with satisfaction. “They seem to be getting along well.”

“They’re children,” Tyron replied, dismissively. “Children usually get along well together, and Darien gets along with everyone. He’s a very sociable boy.”

“Well?” Jantzen was impatient. “What do you think? Is my daughter acceptable or not?”

“Not to sound too callous,” Tyron began, knowing full well this was one of the few times he could be blunt with the father of a marriageable daughter and not find himself being called out and in a duel for insulting a young noblewoman. “I’m well aware of your pedigree and also your good standing in the Convention of Nobles. Your wealth was earned through honest means by your twelve times-great grandfather and your own reputation’s exemplary.” He paused as Jantzen bowed his head, exhibiting gratitude for the compliments. “I suppose your daughter’s as good a candidate to be our next margravine as anyone.”

“And not wishing to sound too callous against any other contenders, Your Lordship, but I believe my Ariadne’s bloodlines are the best to be blended with our royal family’s.”

“I’ll be frank, My Lord.” Tyron was just that. “There’s only one other family with an eligible daughter having the right background, and I’d prefer to see my margrave dead before I’d wed him to Meva du Thane, even if she is my own niece.”

Jantzen met that with a smile and an attempt to look humble. “I won’t be indiscreet and add my own opinion to that, Lord Summerlee, since I consider your half-brother a friend. Instead, I’ll simply state my gratitude. Then we’re agreed?”

“I believe we are.”

“Shall we?” Jantzen gestured toward the two children, and the men rejoined them.

~*~

“Darien,” Tyron said. He looked over at Devon and Stacius. “The Tripod and Lady Ariadne’s father have come to a decision.”

“Yes sir?” Darien looked at Lord Summerlee, relieved that he didn’t have to search for any more topics of conversation. He was rapidly running out of subjects. Girls, he was discovering, were difficult to talk to. Ariadne, especially. She didn’t seem to like anything he did.

“We wish you and Lady Ariadne to marry.”

“Not today?” The change in the boy’s expression was remarkable and if he hadn’t looked so shocked, it might have been amusing, especially when he added, “I’ll miss my mallowick match.”

“Of course not,” Tyron assured him. “Later.”

“Oh, well, that’s all right then.” He looked at Ariadne, then back at Tyron. “May I go now? The game starts in fifteen minutes and I’ve still got to suit up.”

“Yes, Darien.” A little discourteous, perhaps, but the boy’s relief was so great, Tyron had to smile. “You’re excused.”

Bowing to everyone, the soon-to-be-margrave bolted from the room.

“That was just a trifle rude,” Jantzen remarked, looking at the doors swinging shut in Darien’s wake.

“The boy’s just shy of thirteen. Give him a little leeway,” Tyron defended his sovereign.

~*~

Galloping down the three flights of stairs, Darien found Orion, arms filled with mallowick gear, waiting at the bottom of those on the first story. Behind him, Daneel loitered, tagging along, as usual. He was too young to play but as the captain’s brother, he’d been made official mascot for the team. That meant he ran up and down before the spectators waving a banner on which the team’s symbol, a flying hawk, was painted.

“What took you so long?” Rion was already dressed in gaming wear, helmet, padded chestplate and kneeboots, and fairly dancing with impatience. “The game’s about to start.”

“I had some official business to take care of.” Darien said it offhandedly as he took his helmet and put it on.

“Since when do you have official business?”

“Since I’m about to have my thirteenth birthday.” He fastened the head strap and adjusted the padded section so it rested directly against his chin.

“That’s right. I forgot.” Orion looked thoughtful. “That means you’ll become margrave pretty soon, and then you’ll really be our ruler.”

“I certainly will.” It was said with satisfaction. They were at the exit from the castle now, going through the door. The sentries there bowed and Darien acknowledged them with a wave as he pulled the chestplate from Orion’s hands and thrust his arms through the shoulder straps. Behind them, Daneel double-timed it, his fat little legs pumping to keep up.

“Are you really going to dismiss Father and make me your Lord Protector?”

They’d discussed often what would happen when Darien became margrave. Orion was to become His Majesty’s right-hand man, the Lord Protector of the Realm and Head of the Peace Force, Darien’s chief advisor, titles now held by Tyron. “Here, let me do that.”

“I’ve been thinking about that.” Darien stopped, turning his back so Orion could fasten the buckles holding the chestplate in place. “And I think, in view of both our standings as newcomers to the political arena, I’d best let Lord Summerlee stay on in his present capacity for several more years.” He laughed. “Gods, I sound like one of those lords making a Convention speech, don’t I?”

“Thank the gods!” Orion blew out an exaggerated sigh of relief. “I’ve been worrying myself that I was going to have to take over and my tutor hasn’t even started on political science yet.”

They both laughed and began walking again, just as Daneel reached them.

“Darien, your becoming margrave isn’t going to make a difference is it? In our being friends, I mean.”

“Not a bit,” Darien declared. He remembered what had happened in the Council Room. “There’s something else that might, though.”

“What?” Orion looked anxious.

“Uncle Tyron has decided I should marry.”

“It isn’t going to be today is it?” Orion’s anxiety changed to anger. “Damn it, that’ll ruin our game schedule if it is.”

“He said it’d be later.”

“How much later?” Orion sounded suspicious.

“Years from now, I hope. Ariadne’s pretty young.”

“Ariadne lo Reza?” Daneel piped up. “She’s kind of pretty.”

“I agree,” Darien answered. “But silly. She laughed because my hair fell in my face when I bowed to her.”

“Girls are like that,” Orion agreed while Daneel snorted scornfully. “They laugh at the oddest things.”

“I hope she stops doing it. I’d hate to have a wife who acts so addlepated.”

“Stop thinking about her.” Orion slapped his shoulder and handed him his mallowick bat. “We’ve a game to win.”

The prince, his best friend, and his brother hurried across the palace courtyard, aiming themselves for the playing field where the two teams consisting of giarls’ sons and Orion’s two younger brothers waited before a gathering of spectators to begin their game.