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Chapter 1

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Chapter 1

Thorne shifted his coils, running his fingers lightly over the strings of his lyre, checking the tuning as unobtrusively as possible. Still perfect. Thank the Lady. If this went well...he might have a permanent position to look forward to. Not that he didn't enjoy the wandering life his Master led, but the thought of an assured place to spend the winter was very tempting.

Looking at the other Bards in the small room with him, he wondered if they all had the same goal of finding a patron or noble family to attach themselves to. Some longed for riches, others for fame. Some just wanted security. And, foreign though the idea was to him, he knew there were probably some who had been pushed to this profession by an unlucky coincidence of talent, given as little choice in their current vocations as Thorne had originally been given in his. He tilted his head, studying the eleven other young bards, and briefly wondered if any of them had actually wanted to be a farmer.

He bit back a smile at the thought, grateful for the momentary distraction from his own nerves.

Still, foreign though it seemed, he supposed there were those who wouldn't enjoy the line of work he was in. Wouldn't enjoy the uncertainty, the real possibility that there would be nowhere to sleep when they arrived at the next town, no audience for their words. Wouldn't enjoy that it was often feast or famine, for traveling bards--and lately, with the growing fears of the hostilities to the north, famine more often than feast.

But Thorne knew he wouldn't trade it, himself. He knew some of the young bards here longed for fame, or fortune, and he admitted he wouldn't mind it himself, but mostly he loved the music, the storytelling, the way he could hold audiences rapt, hanging on his every word. He still liked to talk, but now people listened, and he thought he loved that most of all.

And now things had seemed to come full circle. Fighting back an excited grin, shifting again on his coils and looking down under the pretense of checking his lyre again, Thorne closed his eyes and listened to his heart pounding in his chest. This was it. He was about to play for the naga who'd made it all possible.

* * *

Kaven's bracers had brought more than even Thorne's father had expected, and it had been easy enough, after the harvest and snows of winter had passed, to find a willing Master at the spring faire. Thorne had left his home with a kiss from his mother and sister, a rough hug from his father, and a teasing admonishment from his older brother not to embarrass them all in song. With only the clothes on his back, he'd gone with his new master, Karesh, to learn the trade of a bard.

The next few years were spent in practice and study the like of which Thorne had never known. Not only in music and story telling, but in etiquette and swordplay and a dozen other things he wouldn't have expected he'd need to know. It was hard, terribly hard, but worth every moment. He fell to bed each night well after dark and slept deeply, rising before dawn to work again, traveling with his Master across the width and breadth of Ophidia, learning her roads and towns, her cities and villages. They wintered in inns, in nobles' homes, wherever they were hired.

And as time passed, and Thorne's playing grew skilled, his voice sure, he was called on to perform often enough by himself, Master Karesh looking on. At first, his master critiqued every performance, giving Thorne what seemed like reams of notes for his own improvement. And Thorne listened, applied himself, and improved.

Lately, his Master more often sat back and enjoyed the show, though he always had something to comment on, some suggestion. But Thorne knew his apprenticeship was nearing its end, and soon he would have to make his own way. He hadn't expected the opportunity to come as quickly as it had, though.

They'd traveled to the capital, as they did each year, for the huge summer faire. An annual event, it drew nagas from every corner of the kingdom, all of them descending on Tolara for two weeks of festivities, trading, and interactions. More alliances were made and couples married during the faire than any other time of the year. Though he'd been six times before, the faire had lost none of its magic for him; it was as magnificent, as overwhelming and breathtaking as it had been the very first time.

And the faire was even larger this year, for an important alliance was to be announced. Ipson had finally arranged the engagement of his daughter Selria to his best friend's son. The official announcement would take place during the faire, and the day had been made a holiday for the whole city. Or at least for all those not involved in the huge parties at the palace and elsewhere.

Thorne had smiled, hearing the news, thinking of Kaven. He hoped the lavender warrior loved Selria, or at least that he'd be happy with her. And when Karesh had decided they'd go, he was glad. He knew the odds of actually getting to speak with the prince were quite low, but he was willing to try for that small chance. He had never given up hope that he could one day thank Kaven properly for what he'd given him.

At first, the faire had proceeded as normal. He and Karesh did well, coins filling their bowls quickly at each outdoor performance, and plenty of requests from the fairegoers in the city for them to entertain at parties. That would've been enough for the event to be marked as a success in anyone's book, but then the palace servants had come down the hill.

The faire was spread at the bottom of Tolara, in wide fields around the base of the hills that held the city. Outside the city walls, but any attack that reached so far would cancel the faire well in advance, so even in the current state of unease, the mood of the celebration was relaxed. The actual fairegrounds were a bit of a journey from the city itself, but that didn't stop most the inhabitants coming down as often as they could. The king himself toured the grounds at least once a year, though few saw him, as well guarded as he was.

But this year, servants from the palace came down as well, easily recognizable by their livery, and searched through the faire, occasionally pulling a bard or minstrel aside. When one came to talk to Thorne, after he'd finished a particularly successful set, he'd been nervous, but not overly worried, for none of his music could be construed as offensive to the throne.

Still, it had been a definite shock, learning the servant wanted him to perform at the palace, for Kaven's engagement party.

"We're short on talented bards, and Lord Kaven has a taste for good music," the servant explained. "The king wishes to have several bards ready to honor him, and your last song would be much appreciated..."

Thorne had blushed--the last song he'd played had been one he'd written himself, about finding Kaven, and healing him. But he'd agreed, quickly enough, taking the token that would allow him into the palace at the appointed time. And had slithered back to Karesh as fast as his tail would take him.

"Well, lad, it's earlier than I'd planned to set you on your own, but I can't deny you deserve it," Karesh had said, examining the chit. "Go, then, and if you find a place for yourself, take it. If not, we'll travel together for another season."

* * *

And so Thorne sat, freshly scrubbed and in freshly sewn silken finery, gold plaited into his hair and fine golden bands adorning his wrists, waiting for the celebration to start, trying to keep himself calm. And trying not to hope too much that he would see Kaven, have a moment to do more than sing for him. Besides, that moment should be enough, considering the song. The warrior would know he'd done it. He'd become a bard.

Touching the pendant at his throat--a square of gold, suspended from one point and set with rubies and jade--he let out a long sigh, before checking the tuning of his lyre again. It wouldn't be long now.

Sure enough, not ten minutes later, one of the royal guards came in and gestured for Thorne and the other Bards who'd been selected to come forward. They'd been told beforehand where they would be placed--they were to line the ascent to the throne, dressed in their designated finery, in preparation for the arrival of Kaven and Selria and the official announcement of the engagement.

"The majordomo is going to request the attention of the nobles," the guard had told to them. "Then the King and General Othalion will be received, and the king will make the announcement. On his cue, you are each to strike the chord you've been assigned, then bow until Prince Kaven and Princess Selria pass and accept the King's tokens. Once they are seated, the majordomo will present them as the future king and queen of Ophidia, and you may rise from your bow to applaud. Then you each will be asked to perform a single song. Be brief, pray you! Lord Kaven may enjoy music, but Lady Selria and King Ipson have little patience for drawn out tales. Get to the point, and don't embellish!" He glanced through the curtain that separated them from the throne room and banquet hall, then turned back around and nodded once, curtly. "All right," he said. "By twos. Break off when you reach the slope to the throne. You two--the reds. You're first."

He pointed at Thorne and a nervous-looking naga beside him, then jerked his thumb toward the throne room. "Go."

Thorne let out a deep breath, thinking distantly that it was rather sad Selria didn't share Kaven's joy in music, before sliding forward in time with the other naga, down the long pathway to the throne. They broke to each side and he coiled his tail around itself, fingers lightly stroking the frame of his lyre as the other bards took their places.

Soon enough, they were all in place, and the majordomo slid forward as the guard had said he would. Thorne swallowed hard, though he was outwardly calm, thinking it very strange that he was about to see the king, see the general, the two most powerful naga in the land. The farmboy inside of him marveled a bit, though he scoffed as well. All this pomp, all this celebration, just to announce an engagement...Ilyria and Jarrem had been hand fasted at the Spring Faire, with little more than a shared meal of the families to mark it.

But they were paying him well, and at the least he could see Kaven again, so he pushed the thoughts from his mind, trying to keep the tip of his tail from twitching against the floor.

The majordomo cleared his throat. "Lords!" he called, his powerful voice booming over the crowded hall, and slowly, the finely-clad naga and nagi that had been milling about and chatting lightly stilled, turning to face him. "Ladies! It is my great honor and pleasure in presenting to you King Ipson, ruler of all Ophidia, and the mighty General Othalion, who has led our people to victory time and time again and kept our lands peaceful and prosperous!"

Thorne bowed with the other nagas, hearing the nobles applauding thunderously; out of the corner of his eye, he could see the large bodies of the king and the general as they moved together toward the throne, the general a little behind the king. He could not see their faces, but the tips of their tails were wrapped in gold bands inlaid with precious stones. He swallowed, nervous, reflecting that just one of those bands was probably worth more than he'd ever earned in his entire career; discretely, he lifted one hand to gently touch the gold pendant hanging from his throat on its leather chord.

"Rise," came a low, rumbling voice, and Thorne did so, eyes widening as he took in the sight of the king and the general.

They were enormous. Or perhaps they were not so enormous, but the sheer volume of finery they wore made it seem so. General Othalion was gigantic, shinning black that gleamed nearly blue, and Thorne tried and failed to find anything of his son in the father's face. Othalion had the look of a great warrior, and his face might have been handsome once, but it wasn't any longer; his nose was crooked from being broken multiple times, his cheekbones high; his mouth, with a ragged scar trailing over one corner, was turned down in what looked like a perpetual frown, drawing the skin of his cheeks taut with sternness. His eyes, beneath his thick, low brows, were dark brown to the point of being nearly black, and they glittered with power and authority. No kindness tempered the frightful visage, and Thorne found himself quailing a little, thinking of singing for those terrifying dead eyes. Kaven must have gotten his gentler, more graceful looks from his mother...or was it war that turned a naga to stone? Would Kaven look like his father, after seven years of campaigning?

Thorne was reminded rather painfully of the night the naga warrior had lain in his brother's bed, delirious with fever, asking for his mother. The thought of that vulnerable young naga becoming like the hardened creature before him made his heart ache in ways he didn't quite understand. He lowered his eyes, throat tightening briefly at the memory, but shook it off quickly. He needed his voice to be in good condition, after all, if he were to sing.

He focused his attention back on the king, who, while not as large as the general, was the same gleaming black, long black hair pulled up tight and worked into an elaborate knot at the back of his skull. Thorne wasn't sure if it was just the hair that was making the king's face look rather strained, or if that was how the king always looked, but he had the distinct air of someone with far better things to do, who was anxious to get through the proceedings at hand so he could get back to them, thank you very much.

He realized the king had been talking, and straightened again, focusing his rather scattered attention on the words instead of the face so he wouldn't miss his cue.

"And so," Ipson was saying, "it gives me great joy to announce the union between my beautiful daughter, the fair Princess Selria, and Lord Kaven, noble son of our kingdom's finest general, my personal friend, General Othalion. In the coming of three years they shall be wed, as is custom, and Lord Kaven, henceforth Prince Kaven, will accept the throne, and my crown, upon the turning of his thirtieth year. My people: your future king and queen!"

Thorne played his chord with the other bards, bowing low as he'd been told. But he couldn't keep himself from looking up through his lashes, touching the pendant again, watching for Kaven. The nagi beside him was probably very beautiful, but Thorne wasn't interested in seeing her.

And there was the lavender tail, the white hair--down and combed and twined with more jewels, hanging down his back. And it was very pretty, Thorne supposed, but Lady, how must Selria be dressed if they were doing this for the males? He pushed the thought out of his mind, concentrating on the ceremony going on, the words spoken, waiting for his next cue. Soon, he'd have his chance to play for Kaven. The others might hear, but it was for Kaven alone.

After a moment, he and the other bards rose from their bow, and he saw Selria--who was beautiful, Thorne supposed, but rather overshadowed by Kaven himself. She was pale blue in color, which meant their colors suited one another, but her hair, long and pale blonde, was rather dull next to his shimmering white, and her eyes were droopy, her nose just a tad hooked at the end.

Sparing a moment to wonder why he was so critical of her, Thorne applauded with the others as Kaven and Selria accepted the token rings from King Ipson, and Ipson pulled Kaven into a stiff embrace.

"I call you now, and ever, my son," the king said when he pulled back, his hands on Kaven's shoulders.

Kaven bowed, his back still to Thorne--though close enough that Thorne could've touched him, if he'd unfurled his tail--then turned around, moving forward with Selria and standing tall on his coils as the nobility applauded.

Thorne swallowed, barely remembering to applaud with them as he took in the sight of the warrior who'd once teased him for talking too much. Kaven was not the beaten, sickly naga he'd been when Thorne had found him in the creek. He was larger, full-grown now, and his scales had a luster that told Thorne they'd probably been polished before he'd come out. His cheekbones were more well-defined, his jaw line more squared than Thorne remembered, but his eyes...his eyes were the same: pale blue, deep, intelligent eyes that seemed to hold a sadness that lay just beyond the reach of Thorne's understanding.

Kaven was smiling, and together, he and Selria bowed to their subjects. Thorne noticed that Kaven wore significantly less of the finery than the king and the general, though whether that was because his station was not yet as high as theirs or a personal choice of the Prince, Thorne wasn't sure. He silently approved, though, as he gazed up at the face that had haunted his dreams for the last seven years. Kaven was beautiful enough without finery, and needed no gilding.

After a few moments of applause, the new prince raised his hand, and the hall quickly fell silent. "My people," Kaven said, and his voice was gentle, rich--and, like his eyes, just a little sad. Thorne wondered if anyone but him could see the ache in the warrior, or if he was simply letting his imagination run wild yet again. "I thank you for the honor of your support, and your well-wishes. I, and my beautiful bride to be, wish nothing but prosperity upon all of you, and we each feel blessed to know we will soon be serving your needs, and the needs of all the peoples of Ophidia."

There was a bout of fresh applause, and Kaven bowed low again, before turning from the sea of faces and heading to the throne. Once he'd turned, Thorne caught a glimpse of his face; the smile had slipped from it, and his eyes had taken on a tired expression that hadn't been there before.

It was gone, however, when Kaven settled upon the cushion next to his father, even as Selria settled beside the King. Thorne wondered again if he'd imagined it, but shook the thought off, as he was gestured forward, to perform first. It could've been worse, of course, he could've been in the middle--forgotten--or last and have to wait through everything else...at least this way it would be over quickly.

He slid forward, bowing low. "Your Majesty, my lords, my lady. I am Thorne, and this is a song in my Lord Kaven's honor." Bowing once more, he settled, bracing his lyre against his tail, and began to sing. Though his voice reached all in the room, the performance was for Kaven alone.

"Water's embrace, first held his face, a warrior broken down
A farmboy's eyes, wide in surprise, take in this thing he's found

Oh soldier-boy, where are you from, fallen into woe?
Oh soldier-boy, why did you come, only then to go?

A healer's hands, a farmer's lands, a boy's kin lends their aid
Dark fever's hold, broken by cold, in the Lady's arms he's laid.

Oh soldier-boy, where are you from, fallen into woe?
Oh soldier-boy, why did you come, only then to go?

A farmboy's dream, a princeling's scheme, gold shining in my hands
My thanks to you, I'll see this through, say farewell to all my lands

And now I sing, before a king, my life my dream come true
Oh soldier-boy, this song, this joy--I owe it all to you."

Thorne let the last note trail off, before looking up once more.

Othalion and Ipson were clapping politely, and Selria was smiling wanly, already looking bored, but Thorne barely noticed them; it was to Kaven's face his eyes flew, and settled.

And the prince's eyes were fixed upon his, wide, a disbelieving recognition swirling in their depths. His mouth was hanging open slightly, the expression of surprise subtle, but Thorne knew it for what it was. He held the gaze, and for a long moment, it seemed they were the only two in the room; Kaven's eyes flickered down to Thorne's throat, to the pendant that hung there, then flashed back up to Thorne's, his mouth finally closing again. He rose, slightly, and nodded his head once. "Thank you, Bard Thorne," he murmured, and a glow of the purest joy flowed through Thorne's heart.

Then it was over. Kaven looked away from him, nodding to the next minstrel, and Thorne was ushered back over to his place along the side of the carpeted path to the throne. But when he looked up again, Kaven's mouth was quirked ever so slightly, and his eyes, though distant, no longer seemed quite so sad.

The rest of the bards were good, there was no denying that, though Thorne thought he was better than several, and definitely below one or two of them. He half-listened, committing the lyrics and fingerings to memory when it was something he liked--not necessarily to play, but it never hurt to know what others were doing. But most of his attention was still on Kaven, though he tried not to be obvious about staring.

The prince had recognized him. Knew that he'd done it, that he'd taken the gift he'd given, and made good use of it. If nothing else came of the festival, of the faire, Thorne would still count himself more than satisfied. He'd been able to thank the other naga in person, and properly.

It seemed to Thorne the line of performers would never end, but eventually the twelfth had played, bowed, and returned to the line.

Kaven moved forward, when the last had finished and returned to his place, and raised his hands. "Good people," he said, "let us once more thank our talented citizens and musicians, for their wonderful performances."

Thorne flushed as the great noblemen and ladies again applauded him and his fellow minstrels, the disbelieving joy still swirling through his heart as they bowed their thanks. Kaven himself had backed up, and was scanning the faces of the minstrels, applauding each and giving each an additional nod. Thorne knew this was tradition--the royalty's way of reminding the nobility that patronage was appreciated among the artisans--and he appreciated it in all its formality. But he couldn't help the shiver that ran through him, from his neck to the tip of his tail, as Kaven's eyes again met his, and the prince nodded once more, applauding softly.

Then Kaven turned away, and the majordomo gestured to the minstrels to return to the room from which they'd exited, as the chief lords began to give their toasts. While Thorne was grateful he wouldn't have to stay and listen to all of them--it would be unbelievably tedious, after all--he couldn't help but wish he'd been allowed to stay, if only to be near to Kaven.

But he was finished, and a part of him was relieved. In the room again with his fellow bards, he chatted easily, sharing stories and congratulations, removing some of the fancier (and by definition, in Thorne's opinion, more awkward) finery and stowing it carefully in his pack. They were to be escorted back to wait until the toasts were done. Each was to be allowed an hour in the banquet hall, once the feasting began, in case any of the lords or ladies wanted to offer them patronage. Those who weren't would be rounded up again, and escorted back through the streets, to the gates of the city and the faire grounds, left with a small purse of silver coins and a token they could present to future customers indicating they'd played for the royal court. It was any bard's dream, and Thorne knew just how lucky he was to have been offered such an opportunity so early in his career. The token would assure him business for the rest of his life, for the country inns and the smaller noble estates were always eager to associate themselves with the royal court in any way they could.

Still, he couldn't help feel a small swell of sadness. It was over. He'd seen Kaven again, gotten to thank him--a chance never to be dreamed of, he knew--but he would likely never see him again. His soldier-boy was to be king, and though he was certainly no farmboy now, it really made no difference. There was still a world of class between them.

He sighed, realizing he'd grown silent, and slid forward to strike up a conversation with the shy green minstrel lad who'd sung a ballad about Othalion's great battle with the stallion lord of the Centaurs. Not the most original piece--nearly every minstrel learned it, when he first began to train--but certainly appropriate, and he'd sung it well, if not exceptionally so.

About three hours later (and Thorne found himself cringing on Kaven's behalf--three hours of listening to pompous, long-winded toasts would be more than enough for him) the majordomo finally returned, preparing to usher them into the banquet hall. Thorne, as the first to sing, was now in the back of the room, and as such he was the only one still in the room when the majordomo caught his arm and tugged him aside. "Not you, son," the plump, grey-haired naga said to him. "My Lord Kaven wished me to retain you for a moment. He desires a word with you."

Thorne's heart thumped in his chest and he felt himself nod. "All...all right. Thank you, sir." He sank back against the low bench along the wall, chewing at his bottom lip, idly plucking the strings of his lyre, wondering just what he should expect. Surely--surely nothing bad. Right? His song had been one of thanks, and he'd been careful about being respectful, following every rule of etiquette he'd been taught by his mother and by Karesh...

But--what if Kaven had been offended? Perhaps being reminded of his defeat, the loss of his men, wasn't exactly what a newly-crowned prince wanted. Perhaps he was embarrassed, to have his defeat recounted in front of his subjects. And soldier-boy wasn't exactly the most respectful thing to call a prince...Fuck. But the song had been approved by the servant who'd first recruited him, and the three levels of officials for which he'd auditioned. Surely they wouldn't have let it through if it would've offended him...

Calm down. Don't get your tail in knot before finding out what he wants. Perhaps he just wants to say hello...

Thorne snorted aloud at that thought, hoping Kaven could sneak away soon.

But when the door finally did open, it wasn't Kaven, but the majordomo who entered.

"My lord sends his apologies," he said. "But he fears it will be awhile. I have been told to inform you that he wishes to offer you a permanent position in his court, if you so desire it. If not, there is no need to detain you further."

Thorne felt his jaw drop, fingers falling across the strings in a musical--but tuneless--hail of notes. "I...Yes. I do desire it. Very much. I will need to tell my master, but..." He pinched his own arm firmly, pulling himself under control. "Thank you. I am honored to accept my lord's most gracious offer," he said, finally finding his manners again, mind buzzing. A permanent position with the royal court. Sweet Lady!

The majordomo nodded. "Then allow me to be the first to welcome you, master...?"

"Thorne," Thorne supplied quickly, bowing low to the naga who, he realized, was now his superior

"Thorne. I'm Rivek. It's a pleasure." Rivek beamed, holding out his hand, and Thorne took it, shaking it weakly. "As a mark of your new position, you'll be given a tattoo on your left arm. It will assure you permanent entrance to the palace, and to all of the chambers into which you may enter. The marking is typically performed three days after the official acceptance of the offer, so you have a three-day period in which to change your mind. Until then, you will wear this." He reached into his satchel and pulled out a gold armband in the shape of a snake, sliding forward and slipping it onto Thorne's bicep. "It will allow you the same privilege as the tattoo. I suggest you go and tell your master now--it's going to be awhile before Prince Kaven can get away from the ceremony. When you return, the guard will show you to your chambers, and we will lay out dinner for you."

"Thank you, sir," Thorne replied, touching the armband with awe still visible on his face. "I...thank you. Should I leave my things while I go inform my master, or take them with me?" he asked, his head swimming.

"You may leave them, and they will be taken to your chambers as well," Rivek replied, still smiling, obviously pleased with Thorne's happiness, and his astonishment. "I assure you your lady will be treated with care," he added, when Thorne's hand tightened slightly on his lyre. "If you'll just indicate your pack, I'll have a page take care of it before the other bards return. And may I say your talent will be welcome."

"Thank you, again, sir," Thorne replied, fetching his pack quickly, and carefully wrapping the lyre before straightening. "I will be back shortly."

"Go, lad, tell your master the good news," Rivek replied, chuckling softly. "And take your time, these receptions last for hours."

Thinking he was lucky in more than his position, Thorne smiled and did as he was told, slithering quickly from the palace and down through the streets of the city, still well lit and patrolled for the celebrations in honor of the new prince.

It still seemed a long time before he was opening the flaps to the tent he shared with Karesh, though, and he was near bursting with his news before he reached it. "Master?"

Karesh was bent over his own lyre, a rather worn but still beautiful instrument, plucking away at a new song. He looked up when Thorne entered, and a beam crossed his weathered face. "Ah, Thorne, my lad!" he said, rising from his coiled position and slithering forward. "How did it go?"

Thorne once again--for perhaps only the second time in his life--found himself completely speechless. In answer, he removed the armband and held it out, his face alight with joy.

Karesh frowned, taking it and studying it for a moment before his eyes suddenly went wide, and he looked up. "You...did they...?"

Thorne nodded, grin somehow widening. "A permanent position in the prince's court."

Karesh brought his hands together and pressed them to his mouth, then slid forward, pulling Thorne into a rough embrace. When he drew back, his eyes were a little damp. "Congratulations, my boy," he said softly. "The highest of honors. I'm more than a little envious, but you have such spirit...you deserve this." He nodded, clapping Thorne on the shoulder. "I hope you're happy in the life fate has chosen for you."

"I couldn't have done it without you, Master," Thorne replied, his own eyes filling. "Thank you...for everything. I won't forget you, I swear. I...can't believe it's real," he admitted, sliding the armband back on. "I'm to gather my things and report back to the palace...they're preparing chambers for me. Me!"

Karesh chuckled, nodding. "Then you best not keep them waiting," he said. "Come on, boy. I'll help you."

They gathered Thorne's things into his extra pack, and he hesitated, before slipping it onto his back, digging quickly through it. "Master...it's not much, and if I had more it would be yours, but..." He straightened, holding a plainer armband than the one he now wore, the first piece of jewelry he'd bought himself with his earnings as a bard. It was silver, a singe piece of jet forming the snake's eye. "Please take it? You have given me so much."

Karesh took the snake gingerly, running his calloused fingers over its coils, then moved forward swiftly and pulled Thorne into another embrace. "You do me proud, lad," he murmured against Thorne's shoulder.

Thorne hugged him close, for a long moment. "I will always try to, Master." Finally he pulled himself away, again wiping his eyes. "I will write to my family, but give them my love, at the Spring Faire?"

"Of course," Karesh replied gruffly, squeezing Thorne's shoulder. "Now go. And remember your breathing exercises, the prince won't want to hear you squawking like a bird when your throat closes on you!"

Thorne laughed, embracing Karesh a final time, before hoisting his pack up and leaving the tent for the last time. He slid through the faire with a sense of surreal amazement, knowing the next time he saw it, he'd bear the mark of Kaven's court. It was all more than a farmboy from the outer provinces could take in.

He took his time, returning to the castle. It wasn't that he wasn't excited. He was. But he was nervous, too. After all, he hadn't spoken to Kaven in over seven years, and then it had only been for a few days. Would the prince have changed? Would he want to talk to Thorne, or just...keep him on reserve, until he needed someone to sing for some grand party or other? And what would he do in the meantime? He'd met a few bards who were permanently in the service of lords and ladies, and he knew many of them doubled as servants or teachers to the younglings, but surely a palace would already have all the staff it needed. Would he just...be left alone? To compose, perhaps? That would be nice, he guessed, but he'd get awfully lonely awfully fast, if he never had anyone to talk to.

But maybe he could talk to the rest of the serving staff. The majordomo--Rivek--he'd seemed nice enough. And he'd be close to Kaven, get to see him a lot. Not every day, probably, but certainly more often than he would have, otherwise.

When he reached the palace gates, the guards nodded to him and slid aside. As he passed, however, one of them hissed his name: "Thorne!"

He paused, turning, eyebrows going up in surprise--then realized it was Makah, the green Sentry who'd stood guard over their house, when Kaven had been injured.

"Makah!" Thorne grinned widely. "I didn't know you'd been reassigned to the palace! Ilyria still writes me saying how much she misses having you around."

Makah blushed, but grinned back. After the incident with Kaven, Thorne's family had all but adopted the Sentry, inviting him to dinner on more than one occasion and taking him hot lunches when the weather got cold. "I miss your family too," he said. "I was reassigned here after I received an injury in the last campaign." He lifted his cloak, revealing a large scar that ran from his hip partway down his tail.

Thorne hissed in sympathy. "Ouch. While I'm sorry for your injury, I have to say I'm glad to find a familiar face here..." He grinned, then, unable to stop himself. "Lord Kaven has just added me to his court."

Makah's eyes went wide, and he grinned, opening his mouth to say something, but the guard next to him cleared his throat pointedly, and he blushed. "Um--Thorne, I'm sorry, I'm on duty. But I'm staying in the barracks on the other side of the courtyard--come visit me sometime?"

Thorne blushed, as well. "Of course. I'm sorry, too, to distract you...but I will! I promise. Until then." He slithered off, hoping he hadn't gotten Makah in too much trouble.

He went back around to the side entrance he'd left from, and saw there was another guard at the door, who waved him in. Once inside, a page quickly appeared to lead him down a maze of hallways and into a large, open-air chamber with a view of the back gardens, a large nest-bed with curtains that could be pulled around, a full-sized harp, an assortment of silver flutes laid out upon a black velvet cloth draped over an end table. An oval mirror stood in one corner, and a double-doored closet in another. The page bowed to him. "Your quarters, sir," he murmured, then backed out of the room, pulling the door closed with his tail as he went.

Thorne turned to the door, thinking to ask if there'd been a mistake, but there was his lyre and his battered pack, leaning against the closet door. "Sweet Lady," he murmured, slowly exploring the chamber, finding another door, that led to a smaller sitting room, with its own entrance onto the more public hallway beyond. "And at home I was glad to have room enough for my bed," he murmured, closing the door behind him and going to unpack his meager possessions.

Finery he hung in the closet, wondering if it would be fine enough. And how he was supposed to get more, if it wasn't. He could ask someone, though, surely there were new additions to the palace staff all the time, and there must be systems in place to help them settle in.

His music and his instruments he laid out beside the flutes, touching one with a gentle finger. The harp he could play--he'd not touched one so large, but he knew the theory well enough--but it had been some time since he'd touched a flute or pipe. Still...he should have time to practice.

Finally abandoning it all, he slithered out onto the balcony, looking down into the gardens, slowly unplaiting his hair, removing the cording that had highlighted his braids. "Can this actually be real?" he murmured aloud.

"I'm afraid so," came a soft, amused voice from behind him.

Thorne jumped, surprised, and whirled around, before blushing and bowing quickly. "My lord...Um. Guess you can see I still talk to myself..."

Kaven slid forward, out from the shadows of the hallway and into the room. That odd half-smile was on his lips again, and Thorne reflected it was basically the only smile he'd ever seen on the Prince. "I would expect nothing less," he agreed softly. He glanced quickly around the room, then back at Thorne, lifting one white brow. "Everything is to your liking, I hope?"

"Everything is amazing, my lord," Thorne replied, grinning. "This is...more than I dared dream for myself. Thank you, again. It seems I'll never be able to stop thanking you, at this rate," he added, watching Kaven curiously. The other naga had removed most of his court finery, leaving him simply dressed in only his loinplate and cloth. And it suited him, much more than the jewels and robes. "You look well."

Kaven nodded, an acknowledgment. "Thank you," he said. "As do you. I'm glad..." he trailed off, then gestured vaguely. "I hope you'll be happy here."

Thorne flushed slightly, sliding in to set down the cords that had held back his hair, running a hand back through the free mass of it. "I think I will be. It's...well. This is never a place I truly imagined finding myself, when I was younger, but I am very, very glad I'm here. And it's good to see you again," he added. "I wanted the chance to thank you in person, but I never expected to get it."

Kaven looked at him, then grinned suddenly; the change on his face was startling. He looked...young. And, for just a moment, carefree. "You've certainly come a long way from the farmboy who didn't know when to shut up," he said, eyes sparkling a little.

Thorne laughed, smiling back. Kaven was still handsome, and more so without the pain and remains of fever lining his face. "I think I know a few people who might argue that, but thanks. It's been a long time, since that fall..."

"It has," Kaven agreed softly, smile fading again, and the sadness returning slowly to his eyes.

Thorne could've hit himself. "I'm sorry. I can't imagine those are comfortable memories for you." No matter how much he cherished them, himself, he had to remember that Kaven had lost his men. He was almost surprised the prince would want him around as a constant reminder of the tragedy.

Kaven smiled again, but it was less brilliant than before, and it didn't quite reach his eyes. "It's all right," he said. "Listen, I have to go, but...I wanted to make sure you were settling in all right. I really enjoyed your song tonight," he added, and if Thorne didn't know any better, he'd've said there was a slight pink flush to the Prince's cheeks.

"I'm glad," Thorne said shyly. "I...I wrote it hoping I'd get to sing it for you someday. Thank you, again, my lord. For everything. I hope...I hope I'll prove worthy of your trust."

Kaven nodded. "Goodnight, farmboy," he murmured, turning away and slithering silently out of the room.

"Goodnight, Kaven," Thorne whispered, closing the door after him. He slid back on the balcony, resting his elbows on the railing and looking up at the moon, over the gardens.

A place in the royal household, occasional conversation with the prince himself...and who knew what might happen once Kaven was king? And married. Thorne sighed at that, thinking of his crush. It seemed even sillier now, in hindsight, but after seeing Kaven again...He could certainly remember why he'd had one. "Me and half the kingdom, no doubt."

He shook his head, sliding back into his room and ringing for a page, asking for his dinner to be brought in, as well as a bath. He felt almost guilty, at the ease with which both were arranged, but comforted himself with the promise that he'd try not to make more work for the servants than he had to, and perhaps arrange to play for them if it'd be allowed.

And it was hard to hold onto guilt, when he slipped into steaming hot water, washing the last of the faire dust from his body.

A royal bard. What would his brother say? "Guess I didn't embarrass the family, huh, Merric?" he murmured to the night air, before sinking under the water to wet his hair, grinning all the while.

* * *

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I scared the librarians with my squeal. I love how overwhelmed Thorne is. He deserves an oppertunity like that but he's so self effacing in some points and so confident in others and I want to give him and kaven a -hug-.

This is a pleasure to read.
Your comment about scaring the librarians made me laugh. I think I've done that a time or too, trying not to laugh at a public PC.
XD I do it way too often. It's rather funny. I think they're getting used to me
I love Thorne so much. Of course I love Kaven as well, but I'm more happy we get the chance to see more of him now that Thorne's in the palace. This just makes me more excited for what's to come!
WOW... just wow. That was definitely worth putting off my studies for. I love Thorne's last spoken line.
Oh my god. I was so into it, I was holding my breath during Thorne's song. So damn adorable! X3

Pffft, Kaven's getting married? :P That won't last long. But oh, the drama there. X3 Hee, Thorne sizing up the competition. Oh so silly. She doesn't compare.

Eagerly awaiting more.
Aaaah, Kaven and Thorne cuteness. I'm so happy to get to read this~

As always, I'm waiting anxiously for more. ♥

-- shiroblue on y!gall
This was such a lovely chapter. I can't stop smiling. You handled the transition of time beautifully. I love this:
He still liked to talk, but now people listened, and he thought he loved that most of all.
It says so much about Thorne and how he has grown with just a few words.

I can't wait for more.
Tiiiiiiiime warp! And, naturally, done well. Karesh seems really nice. That is perhaps the most bland sentance I have ever written in a review. But he does!

Oh Kaven, secretangst man. ::pets::

How much do I love Thorne! I love him playfortheservantsbecausehe'sThone much.

There may or may not have been a happy!dance when Makah appeared. ::shifty eyes::

Awww!! Thorne is so adorable with his happiness and joy, I love him so much! I'm so glad that not only did Kaven recognize him, but he also gave him a place in the royal court. Just awesome! Loveable Makah is there as well!

He truly deserved all his happiness. Well done, Thorne. Karesh taught him well and now he'll put it to good use. The start of an amazing life...

Can't wait for Chapter 2!

October 2009

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