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Chapter 6

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Author's Note: I just wanted to let everyone know that Thuri and I have decided we're going to post this on a schedule, instead of doing this half-assed "remembering every few months" thing we've been doing up to now. We really do have a lot written, and those of you who've been following in spite of the irregular updates are saints.

But enough is enough, so! We hereby decree there will be a new chapter of Ophidian Mists posted every Sunday night, until we catch up to ourselves where we're writing it now. After that, we'll post as soon as we get new chapters finished.

And to kick it off, we're going to go ahead and post today, with chapter 6, which is longer than the others, I believe.

Links to previous chapters can be found on the journal profile. There are also now navigation links at the bottom of each chapter.

Now, without further adieu:


* * *

When Thorne woke again, it was very early morning, and a little chilly. He realized why very quickly: the cot next to the large bed was empty, and the curtains separating the room from the balcony were fluttering, a sure sign that Kaven had just slipped through them.

Thorne shifted, drawing away from Tash, who'd snuggled up next to him to share his warmth. He wrapped the child carefully in a blanket, then allowed his coils to slide to the floor before picking up his own dusky brown traveling cloak and slinging it over his shoulders, going out onto the balcony.

Kaven wasn't there. Thorne frowned, momentarily at a loss, and peered into the mists lying low over the gardens, wondering where the prince had gone. He slid forward, down the inclined slope and into the well-kept grass, shivering as the dew coated his scales and drawing his cloak more tightly around his shoulders. "Kaven?" he whispered, but the fog quickly swallowed his voice.

Still, he knew the prince had to have just come out here--there was a trail of darker green through the grass, recently flattened by the passage of a naga slightly larger than himself, and he knew it had to be Kaven. Following the trail silently, in case the prince wanted to be alone, but wanting to make sure he was all right, Thorne slid through the gardens until he came to a fountain, in the middle of the grounds. It was there he finally spotted his friend, sitting on the edge of the stone fountain and gazing into the water that trickled slowly into the base. He was wearing a cloak of rich purple, and had the hood drawn over his head, obscuring most of his face, but there was no doubt it was him: the silvery-purple tail was unmistakable.

"Kaven?" Thorne murmured again, coming closer, shivering again in the morning air. Lady, he hated the cold. "Are you all right?"

Kaven didn't move at first, but after a moment, as though pulling himself from a trance, he murmured, "I don't love her."

Thorne slid closer, sitting down not far from the prince, but leaving a good space between them. "Oh. Does she love you?"

"Yes. No. I don't know..." he trailed off, then shook his head, sighing. "It's...complicated. I mean, we...we grew up together. She's like my sister." He bit his lip, then finally looked up at Thorne. "I told myself I could do it, for the sake of my country, and of my people, but..." he trailed off, then sighed again, drawing his cloak more closely about his shoulders.

Thorne nodded, wondering what he should say. He was ashamed of the small part of him that was glad to hear Kaven didn't love Selria. And most of him simply ached for the other naga, knowing he'd never fall in love. "It's not fair, for either of you, to not be given a choice. Especially not when you are practically family already."

"I told myself it wasn't a big deal," Kaven said, shaking his head slowly as the tip of his tail traced patterns in the water, disturbing a few of the lily pads growing there. "That I didn't really believe in all that love stuff. That it wasn't necessary, to be happy. But listening to you last night..." he shuddered, then sighed. "I want to feel that. Everything you sang about. I want to fall in love, and I want...I want to be happy..." he trailed off again, then shook his head sharply, his white hair falling around his shoulders and curtaining his face as he reached up swiftly to rub at his eyes. "It's stupid. I know it's stupid. I'm already so much happier than I ever thought I could be..."

"It's not stupid to want to love," Thorne said softly, reaching for Kaven, and then curling his fingers around themselves, pulling back. His song had done this? No wonder Kaven had looked so stricken the night before. "It isn't. Friendship is wonderful, but it's not the same and I...I don't blame you. I just wish I knew what to say. Besides that you have three years, before anything's final, and a lot can happen in that time..."

Kaven sighed, shaking his head. "I don't know what," he said. "I mean...father's not going to want to see me give up the chance at the throne, but without marrying into the royal bloodline, it's not like I have any other way. And I don't love Ephilian, either," he added, making a face.

Thorne shuddered without meaning to. "I can see why. And...I don't know, Kaven, but don't give up hope. There must be a way things can work out for you. Talk to her. See how she feels. At the least...it could be in name only. You would hardly be the first royal couple who had lovers on the side."

Kaven glanced up at him, eyebrows lifted. "I never thought of that," he said softly. "Yeah, I guess...I guess I could do that. Talk to her, I mean." He chucked then. "It's not like she was thrilled with the announcement, either. She locked herself into her room for three days after our fathers first announced it."

"Well then. You may find she's just as reluctant as you. And if you both agree to pursue other options, then...it's not perfect, but it's a solution." Thorne smiled slightly. "I think you'll fall in love yet, Kaven. You'll charm someone until they can't help it."

Kaven laughed. "Between the two of us, Thorne, I'm not the one who's the charmer," he said, shaking his head.

Thorne blushed deeply, but shook his head. "Talk to Gimma, Lyra and Tash before you say that..."

Kaven shook his head, grinning. "Thorne, I...thanks," he said softly, after a moment, and he looked up at Thorne and smiled, a little shy. "I mean it. You've been so wonderful, and...well, I'm really, really glad you came to the palace, and that you decided to stay."

Thorne's blush didn't lessen in the least, and he ducked his head, letting his hair hide his face. Kaven was...was...irresistible, was what he was, and Thorne knew he was a complete goner. "So am I."

Kaven tilted his head, peering into Thorne's face. "Hey--are you all right?" he said.

"I'm happy," Thorne replied, hiding his face in his hands, blush worsening.

"Uh...well, good," Kaven said, sounding a little dubious. "I'm glad."

Thorne dropped his hands, looking up, even though his face was still red. "I am. I didn't think...I didn't think I'd ever get this wonderful a position. My music would've been enough, but to have such a good friend, as well...It's more than I'd hoped for."

Kaven's smile softened, delighted. "You're a good friend too, Thorne," he said softly. "In fact, you're...well, you're the best friend I've ever had." He beamed at Thorne, reaching out to squeeze his shoulder.

Thorne smiled, shyly, wanting to hug Kaven but not sure he should. Not sure he could stop if he did, anyway. "I'm so glad that...that I was chosen for that party, that...that you remembered me. I wouldn't have wanted to miss out on this."

"Yeah," Kaven said. "Me too." Then, drawing his hand away, he slid from the stone wall and nodded toward the house. "Shall we go wake the others? We need to get going--I think we can reach the first camp tonight, if we make good time, and everyone should be well rested."

Thorne nodded, sliding down himself. "All right. I wish there was something we could do for Desidia, but she seems happy enough, at least..."

"I left orders with one of the guards to go back to the palace and fetch one of the royal healers," Kaven said. "If there's anything that can be done for the poor woman, we'll do it."

Thorne smiled. "I forget I'm around someone who has the power to actually make things happen, instead of just wishing he could...Thank you, Kaven."

"Might as well start putting it to good use, instead of moping around and feeling sorry for myself," Kaven said with a shrug. "Now come on. Let's see about getting some breakfast." He grinned, looping his arm around Thorne's shoulders amiably as they slithered back through the grass.

Thorne did his best not to lean into the touch, but it was hard not to enjoy every moment of the other naga's skin pressing against his, the light weight of the prince's arm, and the companionship the gesture implied.

* * *

Thorne was practically bouncing, the curtains of the coach pushed back, as he watched the last few miles of road between him and his family's home disappear behind them. "We'll see the turn off soon," he told Tash, who'd caught his excitement.

Kaven was grinning at them. "You really can't find more wonderful people than Thorne's family," he told Tash. "And if we're really lucky, his mother will have some of her spice cakes. They rival Gimma's. Though don't tell her I said that," he added.

Tash laughed, and Thorne beamed, hearing his family praised by the naga they'd once risked their lives to save. "They really are good," he agreed. "And there'll be plenty of cider, and fresh-baked bread, and apples, and probably ham and a roast chicken or two..." he let himself chatter, trying to distract himself from the ever-growing warmth that seemed to stay curled firmly in his gut each time he was within a few feet of Kaven. And, since they'd been riding next to each other for almost an entire day, it had become a familiar presence.

The plan, Kaven informed them, was to ride to the camp, check things over, then return to Thorne's farmstead afterward. "We can actually drop you two off," Kaven said. "There's no need for you to make the trip. I can make my rounds, and you two can relax. I'll join you later."

Thorne had wanted to protest, but not wanting his desire to remain near the prince to be too obvious, he'd just nodded. It did make sense, after all; he and Tash were certainly not military, and besides, it might be best if Kaven didn't have them tagging along, making him look...well, less grand than he looked when he didn't have servants trailing him like lovesick younglings.

The fact that Thorne was fast becoming at least lovesick, if no longer quite a youngling, had nothing to do with it. Truly.

You don't even believe yourself. Save it, Thorne. He shook his head, ignoring the voice and watching outside, excitement and a few nerves warring in his chest. He hadn't been home in over a year, now, and he was returning as a royal bard...But no, he knew his family, they'd treat him no different. He grinned, suddenly. "I wonder who's collecting the beechnuts this year..."

"And if they'll unearth as much trouble as you did, last time you did it," Kaven added, lifting an eyebrow at him.

Thorne turned and stuck his tongue out at Kaven, before turning back. "Hush, they're all grateful now."

"Yeah, well, so am I," Kaven murmured softly.

Thorne smiled, resting his chin on his hands. "Me too."

They rounded a corner, and a small path leading down from the main road appeared. Kaven leaned forward, rapping sharply on the front of the coach, and there was a cry outside as the trail of vehicles pulled to a stop. "This is you guys," he said, smiling. "I'll catch up with you tonight?"

Thorne nodded, grabbing the pack he'd filled with gifts for his family, and smiled. "I'll make sure there's cider left for you. See you tonight." He slid down from the coach, turning to lift Tash down in turn, saving the boy the thump. "Goodbye, my lord," he added with a wink.

"Watch your tongue, farm-boy," Kaven warned. "Or I'll make Tash help me think of an equally obnoxious nickname for you." He winked, then closed the curtain. There was a whistle from the driver, and the coaches began moving again, heading up the hill toward the camp on the other side of the north forest.

Thorne grinned after the coach, before hitching his pack into a more comfortable position on his back. "Come along, Tash. My mum's probably been cooking since dawn..." He slid down the familiar path, feeling suddenly much younger, having to remind himself not to just take off at full speed.

When they reached his home, Thorne paused, breathing deeply of the long-missed scents: the chicken roasting, the pine from the nearby forest, the dust from the wheat fields. And then his mother, opening the door and hurrying down the path, dragging him into a hug. "Thorne!"

He hugged her back tightly, holding on for a long moment, breathing deeply. She smelled the same, herbs and spices and freshly baked bread, and for a moment it was as if no time had passed. When he finally pulled back, it was with a shy smile. "Hullo, Mum."

"Hi!" She laughed, scruffing his hair. "We didn't think we'd see you this year. Though we did see a friend of yours recently."

"He'll be along tonight," Thorne replied, grinning. "He's on his way to examine the camp, but he dropped us off. Mum, this is Tash. He's a page in the palace, and is supposed to be looking after both Kaven and me on this trip, so I had to bring him along here so he can do his job."

His mother's eyes fell to the page who was half-hidden behind him, and softened instantly. She brushed back a strand of dark hair (that had a few more streaks of gray than Thorne remembered) and bent before him, smiling. "Tash," she said. "It's wonderful to meet you. You know, we have a Tash here in the village. He's an inventor, and very clever. I bet it goes with the name."

Tash grinned. "My mum would say it does," he offered shyly.

Thorne grinned. "It does. He's quick and very bright."

"Well," she said, "you'd have to be, to look after a prince! Now, lads, do you think you could come inside and help me prepare dinner? The family will be in from the fields in about an hour, and there's a lot of them! It would be a big help to me. Besides, Thorne, you need to meet your nephew!"

"I do! Kaven said he was adorable," Thorne said, already following her back to the kitchen, urging Task along with him. "And I've gifts for everyone. The markets in Tolara are amazing, I've found more things there than I knew existed."

He settled into easy talk with his mother, telling her about the palace, and the city, and the people he'd met. His sister came in after a while, hearing the noise, and gave a squeal of delight to see him, dragging him into a hug before tugging him into the nursery to meet Mekash. Thorne was in love instantly, the dark-haired, blue-eyed boy giggling and waving his hands at him, small tail coiling instantly around Thorne's forearm when Ilyria pushed him into Thorne's arms.

"Looks like he likes you," she said, grinning, and Thorne smiled back, gazing into the bright, chubby face.

"Feeling's mutual," he murmured, tickling the infant's belly and watching him giggle.

An hour later, dinner was ready, laid out on the table. His family had filed back in from the fields, greeting him joyfully, commenting on his rather rich attire. Tash had hit it off with Leeana, Merric's nine-year-old daughter, and the two of them were talking eagerly, swapping stories about life in the city versus life on a farm. It was a bit of a tight fit around the table, but they managed, and had only begun serving when there was a shy knock at the front door.

Thorne looked up at once, feeling himself flush, wishing he could get free to answer the knock. "That'll be Kaven," he offered, causing a few looks, as his mother hurried to answer. Ilyria, beside him, took one look at his face, and poked him lightly, looking both amused and concerned.

Thorne shushed her, as their mother slid back into the room, Kaven following close behind her. The prince pushed the hood back from his head and gave Thorne's family a nervous smile. "He-hello again, everyone," he said, waving shyly. "I'm sorry to interrupt your dinner..."

"Kaven!" came a shriek, and Tooke, Ilyria's four-year-old, slid from where he'd been playing with his mother's bracelet and launched himself at the prince.

Kaven grinned broadly, bending and scooping the child into his arms, hugging him. "Tookie!" he said, settling the child into the crook of his elbow. "Did you get bigger?"

Tooke nodded proudly. "I turned this many!" he told the prince, holding out four chubby fingers.

"You did?" Kaven looked impressed. "Wow! And I think you got heavier, too! You're going to grow up to be great big, aren't you?"

Thorne grinned widely at the exchange, feeling his flush of pleasure deepen at the sight of Kaven holding his nephew, the easy way he teased the boy, before finding a spot at the table. Ilyria, smiling, gave up her own, so that Kaven was pressed tightly against Thorne, seemingly unaware of what his presence was doing to his bard.

For his part, Thorne simply tried to enjoy it, and to avoid the looks his sister was giving him.

After some initial stiffness, Thorne's family settled back down, and soon there was easy banter going on between them, and laughter. Kaven, for his part, listened intently as the men talked about problems with the crops, most of which had to do with the presence of the outpost and the requisition of the supplies.

"It's not that we mind feeding them," Merric said quickly, as though worried he'd offend Kaven. "It's just that we're having trouble growing enough to feed them, feed ourselves, and sell at any sort of profit."

"I see," Kaven said, nodding slowly. "Is it a lack of manpower, or land...?"

"Mostly manpower," Thorne's father said, considering. "We've got two fields we haven't had time to develop--right now they're basically swampland, and they'd be fertile if we could get in there and work with them, but we don't have time. By the time we get the upper fields sown the planting season's over."

Kaven nodded again, looking thoughtful, even as the conversation turned to other things.

Thorne wriggled slightly, though, knowing that look by now, and wondering what Kaven would come up with. And then he nudged the prince, slightly, pushing his plate toward him, when Kaven seemed likely to stare off into the distance thinking instead of eating. "There'll be none left, with this lot, if you aren't careful," he murmured in an undertone.

Kaven looked over at him, coming back to himself, and smiled. "Thanks," he said, taking a piece of chicken and popping it into his mouth, chewing slowly. "I'm just thinking...the troops positions at the borders are usually in shifts, and the rest of them are given leave, but they don't usually go anywhere. I mean...most of them live too far from home to get there and back in the time they have."

"And most of them are farm boys," Thorne observed, grinning slowly. "I like the way you think, my lord."

Kaven elbowed him lightly. "Knock it off, farm-boy," he said, shaking his head and grinning. "But yeah...I don't know how we'll work it out, exactly, because it is their leave time, and I don't know that the palace could afford to offer them pay for the labor, but perhaps there's some way..."

"If nothing else, giving them the chance to eat a few home cooked meals and stay with families closer to their own would be incentive for some of them," Thorne offered, elbowing Kaven back just because he could. "And it would give them a better idea of who they're protecting, why they're here..."

Kaven nodded slowly. "Most of them are used to labor," he said. "They get restless, when there's nothing for them to do. And maybe...maybe we can restation some of them, so the lands they're working are their own. After the training they're assigned at random, but I bet we could arrange it so most of them are stationed at least near their own villages."

"It's something to think about at least," Thorne agreed, poking Kaven again. "After you eat. I swear, it's a miracle you're bigger'n me..."

Kaven chuckled, reaching for another piece of chicken. "I didn't forget to eat before you came along," he said. "Or not as much, anyway. I had nothing to do but attend banquets and parties and balls and festivals. You're the one who reminded me there are other things I could do with my position."

Thorne didn't say a word about how thin Kaven had been when he'd first come to sing for him, but he snorted softly. "Then it's a good thing I'm around to make sure you're eating, too. Saving the world is well and good, but you have to make sure you..." He trailed off, realizing Merric was staring at him, trying not to laugh. "What?"

"You sound just like Mum!"

"I do not!"

Kaven chuckled, nudging him with his shoulder. "You do, a little," he said softly.

Thorne groaned, dropping his face to his hands, to his family's great amusement. "Sweet Lady, I do..."

"I'd like to know just what's so terrible about that!" Thorne's mother said, folding her arms over her chest and glaring at her family.

Kaven smiled up at her. "Ma'am, there's no one in the world I would rather he take after than you," he said. "He's taking very good care of me, after all."

Thorne nearly groaned again. Great. So Kaven thought of him as a nursemaid. Why was it when he was away he forgot just how easily his family could embarrass him? He loved them all, of course, but they could make him blush and feel like a kid again much too quickly.

"Hmph. I hope you all heard that," Leandra said, giving Merric a last, long look. "Kaven, dear, would you like dessert?"

"Yes, thank you," Kaven said, nodding gratefully to her. "I wouldn't miss out on your desserts."

She beamed at him, nodding, and left with Ilyria to fetch the puddings. When the family had started talking again, Kaven leaned in and nudged Thorne lightly. "Hey. You all right in there?"

"Can we go home now?" Thorne asked, not moving his fingers.

Kaven chuckled, laying a gentle hand on Thorne's back. "You are home, farm-boy," he reminded him lightly.

Thorne half-shrugged, not wanting to dislodge Kaven's hand. But he didn't feel home, not really. He loved his family, and would've been glad to spend several days with them, but...it wasn't his home, not now. Still, this wasn't really the time to say so. He sighed, emerging from behind his hands, still faintly pink. "Mum's sure to start on the embarrassing baby stories next," he muttered, but offered Kaven a shy smile.

Kaven grinned, looping his arm around Thorne's neck and squeezing him a bit before withdrawing. "It's what families do," he said softly, looking just a little sad.

Thorne slipped his arm around Kaven's waist, and hugged him lightly, not saying anything. He didn't think he had to, and he wasn't sure what it would be, in any case.

Ilyria and Leandra returned a moment later with the puddings, both of which were set and steaming. They moved forward, and Leandra stopped in front of Kaven, grinning. "I think you get the first taste," she announced.

The smile slipped from Kaven's face, and he turned faintly pink. "Oh...ma'am, no, please...I don't want any kind of special treatment, or anything..."

Thorne's mother lifted her eyebrows. "You're our guest," she said. "The guest always gets first taste. So you get to try this one"--she hoisted the pudding in her arms--"and Tash gets first taste of the other one." She nodded toward Ilyria, who had lowered herself in front of the wide-eyed page. "It's tradition," she added, smiling gently. "Nothing more than that, Kaven."

Kaven relaxed visibly at the use of his first name, and grinned. "All right," he said. "Well, I certainly don't want to mess with tradition. I'm honored."

"Don't think it's a privilege!" Merric called, laughing. "You're the one who has to make sure it's good enough for the rest of us!"

The table broke into laughter, and Kaven chuckled, reaching for his spoon and taking a small piece of the pudding, holding up his hand for silence. Very grandly, he brought it to his face, sniffed, then paused, peering around at the rest of the family, who were watching him intently. He squared his shoulders, then leaned in and took a small, thoughtful nibble. Everyone waited, holding their breath collectively.

Kaven was still for a moment. Then, suddenly, he dropped the spoon with a clatter, hands going to his throat, and fell sideways against Thorne, pretending to be poisoned.

The table burst into uproarious laughter, and even Leandra had to laugh, though she was accusing Kaven of being just as bad as the rest of them the whole time. Kaven pushed himself up from where he'd almost fallen into Thorne's lap, looking very pleased at the success of his joke, and shook his head.

"I'm sorry," he said, "I couldn't resist. It's very good. May I have more?"

Leandra put her hands on her hips, giving Kaven a look, but Kaven stuck out his lower lip, eyes going wide and hopeful, and she had to laugh again. "Oh, all right," she said reluctantly, moving forward to dish him an actual serving of the dessert. "Though I should send you straight to bed without any, after an antic like that."

"Yes, ma'am," Kaven said, looking contrite. "Sorry, ma'am."

Thorne laughed again, along with the rest of them, rather missing Kaven's weight against his tail and torso. The other naga was warm, and obviously strong, his muscles firm beneath his skin. Reflecting he had even more fantasy fodder now, he turned to watch Tash take his bite--and perform the same joke, to the delight of the other children.

It was strange, to think of the Kaven he'd seen only a few weeks ago, so sad and lost and depressed, hiding in his rooms, frustrated and barely speaking. Even stranger to think it'd been barely a week since Kaven had returned from his private quest of apology, seeming to have found himself along the way. The laughing, smiling naga beside him was a far cry from the pale shadow who he'd known before.

And Thorne was falling ever harder for him.

He hid a sigh, shaking his head slightly when Ilyria caught his eye and raised an eyebrow. He didn't want to go into it with her, let her know how he felt...besides, she'd probably figured it out on her own. She was better at reading minds than even their mother. But Thorne already knew his crush was completely hopeless, and didn't want to hear anyone else tell him so as well. No matter how kind they were about it.

* * *

After dinner, Kaven followed Merric and Thorne's father back outside to take a look at the lower fields before it got too dark. Thorne opted to stay behind, watching the younglings while his mother and sister and elder cousins cleaned up the leftovers from dinner, chatting easily from the kitchen. He caught quite a bit about Kaven, and how much they all liked him, but he tried to tune it out, distracting himself with the children.

Soon, however, Ilyria appeared in the doorway of the den, moving in to check on her baby, and Thorne knew that, whether he wanted to or not, they'd be having the conversation he'd been dreading having even with himself.

Ilyria settled in beside her brother, scooping Mekash into her arms and humming a little, bearing one breast discretely when Mekash began to fuss and root. He latched on, suckling, and she covered him with the hem of her shirt before finally looking over at her brother. "Well?" she said softly.

"You were right in the first place," Thorne said, shrugging slightly, touching the pendant at his neck. He knew better than to pretend he didn't know what she was talking about, no matter how much he wanted to avoid the subject. "He's cute."

"And engaged," Ilyria said softly. "And a prince."

Thorne's lips quirked. "I know. Believe me, I know. I'm not going to say anything to him, and it'll go away, eventually. I mean...I know it's hopeless, so it has to, right?"

Ilyria sighed. "Sweetling...do you really think it will, if you're living under his nose? If you see him all the time?"

Thorne's sigh echoed hers. "I suppose not. But what can I do? I'm...I'm the first friend he's ever had, I'm not going to abandon him because I...because I feel something I shouldn't. He needs me, Ilyria, and he likes me, and I'll be content with that, and not let the rest of it get in the way. I'm not going to do anything to hurt him..."

"It's not him I'm worried about," Ilyria said, brushing back a strand of her dark hair and shifting Mekash in her arms. "Thorne, you're so wonderful...you deserve to be happy, you know? I don't want you wiling away your life pining after someone you can't have."

Thorne shrugged, looking at the younglings wrestling each other on the floor, the older ones listening rapt to Tash's tales from the palace. "I have my music, Ilyria. And his friendship. That's all I need, for now." He smiled wryly, looking over at her. "Besides, there's nothing I can do about it. I did my best not to fall for him and it happened anyway. Believe me, if I could've picked someone reachable, I would have. But..." He slowly shook his head, reaching over to let Mekash wind his tail around his fingers. "I couldn't help myself."

Ilyria bit her lip, blinking quickly. "Oh, Thorne..." she whispered, shaking her head, even as she drew Mekash out from beneath her blouse and laid him gently against her shoulder, rubbing his back. "Listen...I think maybe you should consider coming home."

Thorne shook his head. "No. Thank you, for caring, for saying so, but...I can't. I know he'd release me if I asked him, but I can't do that to him. I've spent too much time promising he can trust me, I can't make a lie of it. He needs someone he can trust, someone who doesn't care he's a prince, and who'll treat him like Kaven first, remind him to eat when he gets one of his schemes going, make sure he's...he's all right. I know I'll never have him like I want, Ilyria, but that doesn't matter. I'm still staying with him."

"But..." she trailed off, reading the resolve on her brother's face, and sighed, sadly. "All right," she said. "I can't...I can't force you to come home, obviously, but...I just hate seeing you hurting."

"I'm not," Thorne assured her, smiling softly, reaching over to squeeze her hand. "I promise. I'm longing, maybe, but not hurting. I'm just glad to be with him, when I can be. It's...I know nothing will ever happen, so I'll take what I do have and enjoy that instead."

She smiled, then, squeezing his hand back, then chuckling when Mekash suddenly belched, loudly. She brought the child down from her shoulder and cradled him, grinning as Thorne leaned forward to tickle his belly. "Takes after his uncle Thorne, doesn't he?" he said, grinning at the child.

"I'm sure he will, once he learns to talk," came an amused voice from the doorway.

Thorne felt himself go red, hoping Kaven hadn't been standing there long. He didn't think so, and he and Ilyria had been speaking very quietly, but...a thrill of fear still shot through him. "There are worse ways for him to turn out," he retorted, though, tickling Mekash again, smiling as the boy squirmed, smiling, and then yawned.

"True," Kaven said, smiling. "Listen, I came by to say goodnight. I'm heading back to the camp."

Thorne looked up at that, surprised, and afraid it showed plainly on his face. "You are?"

Kaven blinked. "Well, I thought I would," he said. "I mean...you have a lot of family staying here, and I didn't think there was much room..."

Ilyria laughed. "There's always room for a few more. The kids are doubling up, and we put an extra bed in Thorne's old room. There's space, as long as the two of you don't mind sharing. The room, that is, there's two beds."

"I don't mind," Thorne offered, firmly telling himself not to blush. "You don't have to stay, Kaven, but there's a place for you if you do. We'd...we'd thought you would."

Kaven grinned, slowly, and looked down for a moment before nodding. "Well," he said, "I don't think I can refuse such hospitality. If you're really sure...then I'd love to stay."

"We'd be disappointed if you didn't," Ilyria said firmly, squeezing the end of Thorne's tail with her own, though her expression didn't change. "All of us."

Kaven bowed slightly. "Thank you," he murmured. "I really do appreciate it. It saves me the trip, and gives the oxen another day to rest." Then he smiled, sliding forward and settling next to them, accepting Mekash when the child reached for him sleepily. The boy curled his tail around Kaven's arm, grabbing at a lock of his long white hair that had fallen over his shoulder and bringing it to his mouth, gumming it. Kaven chuckled, watching him. "That's right," he murmured. "Gotta give that mouth a good workout, if you're going to be keeping up with your uncle when you're bigger."

"You know, I don't actually talk all the time," Thorne observed, feeling his heart tighten slightly, watching Kaven. He was so sweet, holding the little nagaling, looking down at him so tenderly... I'm completely hopeless. I really, really am.

Ilyria glanced at her brother, then at Kaven, before rising up on her coils and sliding around them toward the door. "I'm going to go see if mum needs help in the kitchen," she said. "I'll be back in a few minutes." She looked pointedly at Thorne, who frowned at her, shrugging. She rolled her eyes, but disappeared, slithering toward the kitchen.

Thorne was still frowning after her when Kaven cleared his throat slightly, and when Thorne looked back at him, he realized the prince was watching him closely. He jumped, flushed. "I'm sorry, what?"

Kaven shook his head. "I didn't say anything," he said. "But...before, when I got here, I heard you and Ilyria."

Thorne felt the blood drain from his face, and he swallowed hard, wondering why it was that the only times in his life he could ever remember being speechless, it was because of this very naga. "You...you did?" he whispered.

Kaven nodded, looking back down at Mekash, who had lost interest in his hair and was beginning to drift off. "Yeah...Thorne, I just wanted to tell you that whoever it is...well, don't give up. He'll be lucky to have you."

The relief Thorne had felt realizing Kaven hadn't heard his own name was dampened by his words. What good was there knowing Kaven thought some mysterious person would be lucky? Good to know Kaven thought so, at least, but still...He sighed. "I don't know...and it's hopeless, anyway. But thank you."

Kaven tilted his head sympathetically, shifting Mekash up higher against his chest. "Now, that's not the Thorne I know," he said, smiling gently. "Nothing's hopeless, remember?"

Thorne blushed, shrugging. "Well...incredibly unlikely to the point of being impossible, then. But maybe not hopeless. How was the camp?" He knew it was a blatantly obvious attempt to change the subject, but he really didn't want Kaven pursuing this much further. He wasn't good enough at lying to keep pulling it off if he was directly confronted.

"They need medical supplies," Kaven said, sighing. "What we brought wasn't enough. And they need decent armor. What they have really isn't cutting it--the newest stone arrowheads the centaurs have been making cut through it like it's parchment." He frowned. "Didn't you say there was an inventor here?"

"Tash?" Thorne lifted his eyebrows, shrugging. "Yeah. What about him?"

Kaven pursed his lips. "I don't know. I want to take a few of the arrowheads around to various inventors and blacksmiths, to give them something to work with so they can try to come up with more effective armor. If the traditional methods aren't working, then I need someone who'll be willing to try some...nontraditional ones."

"Tash is definitely nontraditional," Thorne replied with wry grin. "And I'm sure he'll have ideas for you. We can go see him in the morning, if you like. It's not far from here, and there's a path through the woods that's really beautiful this time of year. It's faster than going back down to the road, too," he added, trying to make it sound less like a lovers' country stroll.

Kaven nodded. "Sounds good," he said, just as Ilyria came back through the door.

"What sounds good?" she asked, as Kaven rose up and gently transferred the sleeping child into his mother's arms.

"We're going to visit Tash tomorrow," Thorne said quickly, lest Ilyria give anything away. "Kaven wants to see about getting better armor for the outposts."

"Oh!" Ilyria nodded. "You should also talk to Jarrem. His brother is a blacksmith."

"Perfect," Kaven said, smiling at her and nodding his thanks. Then, kneeling a little, he pressed a kiss to Mekash's brow. "Goodnight, little one," he murmured.

Mekash sighed, squirming in his mother's hold, stretching his chubby arms and yawning before burrowing back into her breast. She laughed, softly, and grinned at Kaven.

"All right," she said, turning to the rest of the children, who were in various states of drowsing. "It's past everyone's bedtime. Let's go, now, let's go!"

There was a chorus of groans, and Kaven laughed, scooping Tooke up on one arm and Merric's littlest girl, Keera, up on the other. The children giggled wildly. "Come on," Kaven said. "Thorne and I will help tuck you all in, and maybe if you're really good about going there, Thorne will sing us all a bedtime song. Right, Thorne?" He cast a glance over his shoulder, over the squirming, giggling nagalings, and winked.

Thorne laughed, helping to corral the rest of them, again wondering how Kaven had gotten to be so good with kids. "I will. And the sooner everyone's in bed and ready, the longer the song will be!" That set off a mad scramble, and Thorne giggled, taking Keera from Kaven and following the rest of the kids upstairs. "How'd you get to be so good with kids? I wouldn't have thought you'd be around a lot of them..."

Kaven shrugged. "I was basically raised in the palace, so I spent a lot of time taking care of Selria and Ephilian," he said. "Selria's eight years younger than I am, and Ephilian's ten. Which is another reason the engagement is so weird," he added softly, making a face at Thorne. "She's not just like a sister--she's like my little sister. I changed her diapers, for crying out loud."

Thorne laughed. "Lady, that's just wrong. And wait, Ephilian is only seventeen?" He whistled softly and shook his head. "I wonder where she's been getting her education..."

"Another thing I really don't want to think about," Kaven said, as they entered the large room where the kids' beds had been set up. Kaven knelt, letting Tooke fall unceremoniously from his shoulder, catching him just before he hit the bed. Tooke squealed, delighted and tried to crawl back up Kaven's arm when the prince released him. "Again!" he pleaded. "Again!"

Kaven chuckled, shaking his head. "Not tonight, little bit," he said. "But next time, okay? We have to settle down now, so Thorne can tell us a story. Remember?"

Tooke's eyes went wide, and he brought his finger to his lips, making a shushing gesture. Kaven nodded agreement, as Thorne lowered Keera to the bed next to her cousin.

Soon enough, all the children were settled in, and Thorne sat back. "You were all very, very good, so I'll tell one story and sing one song. Leeana, which story would you like most?"

"Please, Uncle Thorne, the one about Rhianna and Velanna." The young nagi's eyes were shining, as she sat up in bed, waiting for the story.

Thorne smiled, though he wondered internally why so many tales seemed to involve royalty in disguise. He told the story, of a princess pretending to be a maid and a farmer's daughter masquerading as a noble, of how they discovered each other's secrets, helped each other, and eventually fell in love. "And then Rhianna wed Velanna, making her a noble in truth, but they spent part of each year away from the palace, in their small secret cottage in the woods."

The children clapped, some of the older girls giggling while the boys pretended they hadn't been hanging on his every word. He glanced at Kaven, and saw the prince was clapping too, grinning at Thorne; when he caught his eye, Kaven nodded once.

Thorne nodded back, trying to hold off a blush. "Now one song, and then you have to sleep. But I promise I'll play for all of you tomorrow, and you can each pick a song you want to hear then. But Tooke, since I missed you birthday, you can pick tonight. What would you like to hear most?"

Tooke blushed to suddenly be the center of attention, and burrowed into Kaven's side, shrugging. Kaven chuckled, speaking softly to the boy, and Tooke peered out from beneath the prince's arm and mumbled, "The one 'bout the magic flower."

"That's a good one," Thorne said, smiling softly, before taking up his lyre and singing the song, twice through. By the end of the second time, even the older children were beginning to nod off, and Thorne let the last note die away into soft silence.

Kaven and Ilyria both shifted from their vantage points; Kaven carefully placed Tooke back onto the bed beside Keera, while Ilyria gathered Mekash close and rose from her coiled position in the corner. They moved from silently toward the door, by a single consensus, pulling it shut behind them so they were all out in the hallway.

"I think," Ilyria said, "that this little one and I are going to bed now. I'd best sleep when he sleeps, if I want to be getting any rest at all."

"Still not sleeping through the night, huh?" Thorne murmured, smiling at his nephew, and Ilyria shook her head, blowing hair from her face and chuckling ruefully.

"Not yet," she said. "He's a curious one, and when he wakes up, it's time to explore, whether mummy and daddy are awake or not."

"Sounds like a family trait," Kaven remarked softly, one corner of his mouth twisting up.

Thorne grumbled under his breath but didn't say anything aloud, smiling when Ilyria laughed softly and agreed it was. She said good night, and disappeared down the hall.

"Are you ready to sleep?" Thorne asked, stretching himself. "I'm tired from the coach and everything, but I can just show you where we are if you were planning to stay up for a bit..."

"I think I'm plenty tired," Kaven said. "Lead the way."

Thorne smiled sleepily and headed off to his room, knowing he could find it with his eyes closed. "Here..." he pushed the door open, noting the two beds pushed inside. He and Kaven would practically be sleeping together, they were so close...but he was too tired to worry about it. He set his lyre down on an empty shelf, the lamp on the windowsill, and sighed, looking outside into the darkness. "Still cloudy..."

"Your father thinks it'll stay that way for a few more days, maybe a week," Kaven said, sliding over to one of the beds and lowering himself onto it with a sigh. "Boy, did we pick a great week to go traveling, huh?"

"Aside from the mud, and the poor oxen and drivers, yes," Thorne replied, grinning slightly. "I like the rain, like it overcast...even if it does make me want to curl up and read or nap in front of a big fire..."

"Oh, I don't mind the rain, it's making everyone else be out in it that kind of sucks," Kaven said. But then he shrugged, lowering himself down onto the mattress and stretching his torso, tail curling up on itself. "But I can say it does make bed feel warmer and drier, when you finally get to it," he said, folding his arms behind his head and sighing softly, contently.

"I used to sneak outside, when it was foggy or raining, when I was little," Thorne said, still looking out the window, though he couldn't see much. There was a light on in the stables, his father and Merric and Jarrem were doing chores. "Drove my mum insane, when I'd come back all over mud and leaves and wet, grinning like anything..."

"Thorne?" Kaven said, and there was concern in his voice. "Are you all right?"

Thorne shrugged. "I'm fine. Just...thinking." He turned and grinned a little. "I do that sometimes, too."

Kaven lifted his eyebrows. "No wonder I was thrown off," he teased lightly, but his eyes were still worried. "Are you going to bed? We've had kind of a long day..."

"In a minute...you can blow the lamp out, if you want. I'm okay, Kaven, promise. Just..." Thorne shrugged again. "Just a little restless, I guess."

Kaven was silent for a long moment. Then, softly, he said, "You...you told me once that I could tell you anything. I hope you know that goes both ways."

You don't want me to tell you this, Thorne thought, sighing. "Ilyria wants me to stay," he said at last. "And I don't want to, but seeing all the children together like that, being with everyone at dinner...It's strange. I don't want this life, I never did, I have the life I always dreamed of. But I can imagine another Thorne, who never met you, and stayed here, and would be married with younglings by now, and it...it makes me restless. Makes me want to be on the road again, not having to think about it." He shrugged. "It goes away, after a day or two with them, but...I can never help wondering what if."

Kaven was silent for so long that Thorne began to wonder if he'd fallen asleep. But eventually, very softly, the prince said, "You...you aren't bound to me, Thorne. If the life you have with..." he paused, then drew a deep breath and finished: "If the life you have with me makes you unhappy in any way, you needn't live it. I told you once I'd help you choose your road, and...I intend to honor that, even if..." he trailed off, and bit his lip.

"But I am happy with you, Kaven," Thorne replied, turning away from the window at last. "I don't want to leave your service, and I especially don't want to lose...well, your companionship, since I'd like to think we'd stay friends. I don't want to live here and farm. I truly don't. But it's strange to come back, sometimes, and feel like my place here is gone."

"But it's not," Kaven said, pushing himself off the bed and sliding forward. "Don't you see it, Thorne? Your family opens its doors to you the moment you enter the front gate. You haven't been here in almost a year, and they act like you never left. Hell, I've only been here twice, and they treat me like their own. You're so lucky, to have people who care this much for you. Don't you know what I'd give, to have the unconditional love that you do? To have a family that would care for me no matter who I was, or what I did? Who'd welcome me back into their arms no matter how far I wandered, or how long I was gone?"

Thorne flushed, wrapping his arms around himself. "I know I'm lucky, that's not what I meant, I just...You asked what was bothering me," he said finally, biting his bottom lip. "I'm sorry. I'll...I think I'm going to get some fresh air, I'll be back in later." Lip still clenched in his teeth, he slid out of the room, only just holding back his tears, wondering what the hell was wrong with him. He didn't do this sort of thing.

Once he was outside, he felt a little better. The cool, damp air, the familiar ground beneath him, the smells of the wheat and the forest beyond...they all calmed him, and the tears that had threatened disappeared again. Honestly, he wasn't certain what the problem was. He knew Kaven was right; he was lucky, and luckier than most. But...how could he explain to the prince that he felt trapped in limbo? Stuck between what he could have had, and what he really wanted, and now certain he could never have either? Oh, sure, he could come back, and find some nice nagi and settle down and have half a dozen younglings, but he wouldn't be happy. Not after tasting the road, after finding everything he'd ever wanted in a prince who would--could--never want him back.

And now Kaven probably thought worse of him, for complaining when he knew he had the family the prince wished he did. Thorne hissed, slithering to an old tree and pulling himself up, wrapping his tail around a thick branch. He knew he hadn't been very clear in what he was saying to Kaven, but then it wasn't very clear in his mind. He just knew seeing his siblings, all content with their lives and obviously worried over his had set him on edge.

Because he'd lied to Ilyria. His music wouldn't be enough. Not in the end. But he couldn't leave Kaven and come home, either. That wouldn't make him happy, it'd make him more miserable. "Unrequited love is for ballads and tales, not for real life," he murmured to himself, remembering Karesh saying it once, when Thorne had asked him why he'd never married.

He wasn't sure if he loved Kaven, but he knew he wanted him. But it would never happen. He'd just have to learn to mask what he was feeling, and try not to worry the prince enough that he'd make Thorne talk about it. Because the bard already knew he preferred it when he was the one comforting Kaven, not the other way around.

* * *

Thorne slid back into the bedroom sometime later, bringing in the scent of light rain and night air with him. The lantern was off, and he slipped out of his loin plate, curling up in his bed with a soft sigh. When Kaven spoke, it startled him enough that he missed the prince's words. "What?"

Kaven sighed, a whisper of breath in the darkness. "I said I'm sorry," he murmured. "I didn't mean to upset you."

Thorn sighed as well. "I upset myself, it wasn't you. I'm sorry, too, I didn't...I wasn't entirely sure what was bothering me, and I put it badly. I really do know I'm lucky."

There was a slight shift, then Kaven's tail slid onto his bed, just the tip, and nudged Thorne's. "Yeah," he said softly, "but that doesn't mean you can't be lonely. I'm sorry. Listen...I really think you should talk to him, Thorne. I've...if it's who I think it is, I've seen you two together, and...I really think..."

Thorne blinked, surprised. "Who do you think it is?" he asked curiously, unable to stop himself.

"The...the green sentry--Makah, right?" Kaven sounded very uncertain. "I mean...I see you two in the gardens all the time...you said he...that he was worried, because you outranked him, but that can...I can change that, we can promote him if you think it'll help, and..."

Thorne actually laughed, unable to help himself. "Oh! Oh, Kaven, that's very sweet, but no, it's not him. He has a sweetheart, anyway, though I don't know who she is. No, Makah is a good friend of the family, and a nice person whom I like, but that's all."

"Oh." Kaven sounded embarrassed, and the blankets shifted again as he withdrew his tail, curling further away from Thorne's bed. "I'm sorry, I guess I just...misunderstood."

"Oh, don't be sorry, I can see why you'd think that," Thorne replied, blushing. "I wasn't laughing at you, I was laughing at the idea...Makah would probably drop dead of embarrassment if he thought I was interested in him. He, um...he's only interested in nagi. I'm sorry, Kaven, I didn't mean to..."

"No, it's all right," Kaven said, and now his voice was a little strange--higher, almost. "It's not really any of my business anyway. I'm sorry. Goodnight, Thorne."

"I..." Thorne bit his lip, hard. "Goodnight," he murmured, curling up in the back of the bed, feeling like even more of an ass than before he'd gone outside before. "I'm sorry I keep upsetting you," he murmured, very softly, before closing his eyes and turning over, wrapping his tail around himself.

* * *

When he woke again, he was alone; Kaven's bed was empty. He frowned, pushing himself up, and slid into the kitchen, rubbing his eyes blearily. The men had already left for the fields, but the children were still asleep, so it was just Ilyria and Thorne's mother in the kitchen, busy with preparations for the noon meal.

"Hello," Ilyria said, nodding to Thorne and gesturing to the table. "Sweetrolls in the basket, help yourself."

"M'not hungry," Thorne replied around a yawn. "Have you seen Kaven?"

Ilyria and Leandra exchanged glances, and Ilyria said, "Yes...sweetie, come with me."

She slid over to the table, lowering herself down onto one of the mats, motioning for him to sit next to her. He did, frowning, and waited. "What...what is it?"

"Oh, Thorne..." she shook her head. "Kaven left. This morning, he...he went back to the camps."

"Oh." Thorne couldn't push away a stab of disappointment, but he supposed he shouldn't be too surprised. Kaven had his duties after all... "All right. I suppose we can go see Tash tomorrow, then."

Ilyria bit her lip, then shook her head. "No, sweetie," she whispered. "He's not...he's not coming back."

Thorne stared at her. "What? What do you mean?"

"Please...please don't be mad at me," she pleaded, reaching out and taking Thorne's hands in hers. "But he...he came to me, this morning, and he said...he asked me if he was the reason you seemed so sad. I didn't know what to tell him! So I said that...I said that as long as you were with him, you'd be hurting, and he...left."

"Ilyria!" Thorne jerked his hands away, sliding back from her. "How...how could you? I told you last night, I'm not hurting, and he's..." He clenched his jaw, face bright red. "Fuck it, never mind. Excuse me, I have to go pack. It'll take most of the rest of the day to get to the camp without a coach."

"You are hurting!" Ilyria cried. "Thorne, I'm not stupid, all right? I can see you're hurting! Please...maybe this really is for the best?" Tears were streaking her cheeks, as she reached for him, but she drew away before she touched him. "I just can't stand to see my baby brother unhappy," she whispered. "Please, Thorne..."

"For the best? What am I supposed to do? Come back here, where I've never fit in anyway?" Thorne shook his head, arms crossed. "I'd be miserable if I came back home, and we all know it. Or at least you should. Maybe...maybe if I'd never left, I could've stayed here, but I can't now. I'm not a farmer. And at the very least, Kaven's my friend, and I have a place at the palace, even if I never have a family of my own. I'd rather want him and not have him while I'm doing what I love than come back here and make everyone miserable by trying to pretend I wasn't. I love you all, and you know that, but this isn't where I belong. And I'm not going to let you take away the place I do have because you still think you know what's best for me. I'm not a youngling anymore, Ilyria, and you had no right to interfere in my life that way."

"I told him not to leave!" Ilyria insisted, wiping at her tears. "I told him to stay, but when he asked me...I couldn't lie to him, Thorne!"

Thorne sighed, the anger leaving him as quickly as it had come. "All right. All right, I'm sorry. But still...I have to go, Ilyria. Kaven's a noble idiot, sometimes, and he's going to keep trying to do what he thinks is best for me unless I can get to him and tell him he's being an idiot."

Ilyria nodded slowly, sighing. "If...if you really think so," she murmured, wiping at her face. "I just hope you know what you're doing, Thorne."

Thorne grinned wryly. "Yeah, me too. But I can't just let him go off like that, Ilyria, I can't." He hugged her tightly for a moment. "Can you go ask Mum to put some travel food together? If I can't find him right away I may have to make my own way back to the palace."

Ilyria nodded, hugging her brother again before releasing him and nudging him toward his room. "All right," she said. "I can't stop you, so go. Find your prince."

Thorne offered her a smile, before going up to pack his things together, hoping all the while that Kaven hadn't gotten too far ahead of him. Not that it mattered if he had, he'd catch up, find him, not matter what it took.

He had to.

* * *

Previous Chapter

End of Book One

Book Two

Comments

YAY UPDATE.

D8 Oh my god, the DRAMA. Guh. Kaven, you noble idiot!

It's utterly squeeworthy and heartwrenching at the same time to see Thorne falling deeper and deeper for Kaven, but NRAGH that ending--! *frantic bouncing*

Also, dessert = awesome X3
bridge

October 2009

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