Categories
Fantasy Short stories

Choices

The light changed, granting its permission to cross the busy downtown intersection, as I hurried back to work after lunch. My phone dinged as a text arrived. Without thinking, I started across the street, looking down to check.

I never saw the car coming.

The impact registered as my body flew through the air. I was distantly aware of pain, and the odd thought, Hope the screen doesn’t crack. Then world went black.

It came back slow and blurry, like swimming up from the bottom of a pool. Instead of a hospital or an ambulance, I seemed to be standing in what looked like college dorm room. Which made no sense at all.

“Welcome back to the moment of your death!” a male voice announced cheerfully behind me.

“What?” Twisting around, my eyes scanned for the speaker. Did he say death? “No. I’m not dead.”

Spread out on the bed, ankles crossed and arms folded behind his head, was the source of the voice. “Fraid so, sweetie. You, my dear, are well and truly and completely deaded. Wouldn’t be having this conversation otherwise. Trust me.”  He was a young man, late 20s maybe, with a mop of dark brown hair, and grinning like the Cheshire cat with eyes an impossible shade of blue. A nagging sense of recognition tickled in the back of my mind.

“Do I kn-?” The question died as I suddenly recognized the bed. That was my bed. My gaze shifted back to the room, taking in every familiar and long-forgotten detail, the posters, the teddy bear, the horrid drapes. It had to be drugs. There was no way I could be standing in my dorm from twelve years ago.

“Yes, yes, yes,” he said, sitting up and swinging his legs over the side in one smooth motion. “Your eyes do not deceive you. No, you’re not on drugs. This is indeed your dorm room. The date is March 16. Time to pick your classes.” He gestured like some old carnival sideshow host towards my computer.

“Uhn-uhhh.” My head shook “No. No way. Not possible.”

He titled his head to one side and grinned. “Are you sure of that, sweetie? Absolutely positively?”

“Yes,” I bobbed my head. “This isn’t real.”

He rested his elbows on his knees and cupped his chin on laced fingers. “Tell me then. What’s the last thing you remember?”

“Walking across 5th.”

“Mmm-hmmm.” He nodded.

“Gwen texted me.”

“Yes.”

“And-” I swallowed back the rising fear, unwilling to say. If I didn’t say it, it wouldn’t be real. It couldn’t be real.

“And you were hit by a car. A blue Ford Expedition to be exact. Going fifty-seven miles per hour to make the yellow light. The driver, ironically enough, checking his cell phone, too. Text from the girlfriend. You know how it goes. Now tell me,” he leaned forward, eyes almost twinkling with delight, “who survives being hit by a blue Ford Expedition going fifty-seven miles per hour?” He raised one hand in an almost agonizing slowness and made a zero shape. “Catch my drift, sweetie?”

“My name is Amy.”

He grinned. “Yeah. Sure. Whatever, sweetie.”

I glowered at him. “And you are?” Time to focus on what made sense. A strange man daring to address me by pet names I could understand and deal with. Claims about my apparent death and somehow traveling back in time, not so much. It didn’t matter how real this felt. I was not going to resign myself to the crazy. My thumbnail dug into my index finger, the pain crisp.

“Call me Aeron.”

“Look…Aeron, I don’t know who in the hell you think you are-” I pointed at him with my last three fingers, still keeping the pressure between nail and flesh. The pain kept me focused. The pain was real.

“Don’t you?”

Something in his tone insisted on a pause. Swallowing, I took a half step back. Somewhere, somehow, our paths had crossed. There was something about his face, his blue eyes and their intensity. I had seen those eyes before. “Have we met?”

He shrugged, rolling like a stretching cat. “In passing a few times. Now I don’t mean to rush you or anything, but you have a choice to make. And I have another date in about oh,” he checked his empty wrist as if wearing a watch, “twenty minutes, give or take. The guy who ran you over? Yeah, his right temple and the steering wheel had quite the meeting. Normally they don’t book two from the same event so close like this. But, ya know, scheduling conflicts and all. So, chop, chop,” he clapped his hands, “choices, choices.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Your class schedule for next quarter. The classes you chose to take on this fateful day, specifically World Lit with Dr. Gubber. Who has a name like Gubber, anyhow? Poor fellow.” Aeron shook his head, then waved his hand dismissively. “Anywho, by picking to be part of that class on this day, you set your rendezvous with the blue Ford Expedition which killed you. Talk about DOA.”

No. No. No. My head shook; sharp tight bursts. I could not be dead. There wouldn’t be any pain. No standing, talking, or thinking. Dead was the end; nothingness. He was wrong. “I am not dead!”

“Well, how else do you explain being in your dorm room?”

Regarding the space, I finally threw up my hands. “Drugs. Lots and lots of drugs.”

“Already told you. No drugs.”

“And you’re so believable.”

“Is this the face of someone who would lie to you, sweetie?”

“Call me that one more time and-“

“Hey,” Aeron tilted further forward, all mirth gone, “I get it. This is a little hard-“

“A little hard?”

His lips pressed into a thin line. “It’s not easy accepting death. Let alone your own. But you’re dead, sweetie. Deal with it.”

I shook my head.

“You know.”

My head kept shaking, refusing to accept his words.

Aeron sighed and leaned back. “Amy.” His tone reminded me of my father when he tried to coax me down the big slide at the fair as a child. “No one survives a collision like that. I’m sorry. Really. But you died. Now you have a chance for something else. So let’s stop with the whole head in the sand thing, and work with what is, instead of what you wish, shall we?”

“I’m not dead.” My words sounded soft, distant even to me. “Mark. We’re going to Chante tonight.”

He shook his head. “Not anymore.”

Fear slipped over my whole body, heavy like a cold, soaked wetsuit. There had to be a way out of this. This couldn’t be the end. Not now. Not for me. Not here.I licked my lips and glanced at Aeron. “You said something about a choice?”

“Yes.” The grin returned. “You may choose to keep things as they stand now. You take World Lit with the amazing Dr. Gubber and your death will remain as is. Or, you take advantage of this time-limited offer to change the choice and change your future.”

My heart rose a little higher. Options were doable, workable. “What would happen then?”

“You wouldn’t have to deal with that end-of-the-quarter assignment comparing Scottish to English literature in the fifteenth century.”

“Or die?” Was this conversation happening? Were we accepting my death? This was not how my day was supposed to be going.

He grinned at me and winked. “You catch on fast, sweetie.”

“Amy.”

“Amy.”

Change a simple class and not die? Sounded like an excellent exchange to me. A thought stopped me. “What about everything else? My husband and kids? The job and house? My dog?”

Aeron waved his fingers apart and made a flapping sound. “Gone.”

“What would happen to them?” They couldn’t just vanish. Could they?

“Not my department. I’m just the choices guy. And not to rush, but tick tock, sweetie.” He nodded over to the computer.

Change the class, change my fate. Walking to the computer and sitting down, I kept my eyes on Aeron, who kept grinning back at me. On the screen, was my old class schedule: piano, stats, Women’s Lit, and one blank space where 12 years ago I put World Lit. The cursor flashed, awaiting the numbers that would determine my future.

Twelve years left to live if things stayed the same. With eight mostly wonderful years with Mark. Two babies, Kevin and Patty, children now. They were my world. My job gave purpose and meaning. We lived in a decent part of town. We had plenty of money for needs and wants with extra to save. It was a wonderful life. One many envied. The only apparent flaw was it ended far too soon.

No. The thought slammed into my brain. It couldn’t be over. There was still so much to do. Learning French for starters. Hiking the Pacific Coast Trail. Seeing my grandpa again. How could I be out of time? Would making a different choice buy me more time?

But what would change? What would happen to my family? Aeron had said gone. Would I be trading them for that time? A mother laid down her life for her children. Yet here I sat, contemplating trading them for my benefit. Then again, might they survive on elsewhere? Could I not still have them again?

What was it about this specific class? It wasn’t connected in any way with my crossing 5th. It was only taken because Creative Writing started at eight and I didn’t want to get up that early. Nothing more than a filler class.

Yet, Aeron insisted this class was the cause of my death. How? It made no sense. Not that any of this was making sense to begin with.

Assuming this was all truth and really happening and I could trust Aeron, couldn’t I still meet Mark and have our babies regardless of my class schedule? They might be independent of this whole debacle.

Or they might cease to be. My new life and extended time for theirs.

My head started to hurt. This was why I didn’t take philosophy. Too many unknowns. Too many what ifs.

I stared at Aeron, helpless.

“Tick tock.”

“You’re not going to help me with this?”

He shrugged. “Not my life.”

Scoffing, I looked back at the screen. No help was forthcoming from that quarter.

I didn’t want to die. At the end of the day, it came down to that. It couldn’t be my time.

To avoid death, I would gamble with the lives of my children.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, “Mommy loves you.”

Even with the declaration, my fingers punched in the code for Creative Writing.

And hit enter.

Three weeks later, I sat next to a young man named Peter. Six months and a whirlwind romance later, we wed.

We wrote a book series together, which became an international sensation almost overnight. The demands for more books, the tours, the interviews, the movie contracts, the whirlwind of success kept us so busy. We knew we couldn’t bring children into the world. Not yet. Next year, we’d see about starting a family. But every year, we had one more project to do. I never noticed the passage of time.

Until almost seven years after our marriage when our plane crashed. And I died.

When my eyes opened, it was to my college dorm and a stranger named Aeron sprawled on the bed. His brilliant white grin stretched from ear to ear as he explained my options. Elusive humor colored his words, like some personal inside joke. For another chance at life, would I be willing to take a class other than Creative Writing? Would I shuffle the deck and try again?

It was never a question; of course. To pass up a chance to live beyond seven more measly years was insane. Besides, I hated getting up early. Though not dealing with writing, sociology always appealed and I chose the intro class at eight pm. Evening classes were much more my speed.

Only three years later, my best friend was getting married. Of course, Shelly wanted to go bungee jumping. I felt uneasy, and almost claimed the 24-hour flu bug . As the maid of honor, it was my duty to go. So I went. I should have listened to my gut. Because the cable snapped, and I died from blunt force trauma.

No sooner did my lifeless body begin to float down the river when my eyes blinked and beheld my dorm and Aeron. This time, it would be French instead of studying social behaviors. Spring break that same year found me touring Europe with the last stop in Ireland. A local directed me to a wonderful little pub. I was in love and ready to move until a bomb went off.

Next, my eyes saw a man all but draped over the back of my computer chair in my dorm. “I know you.”

“You do, sweetie.” His eyes danced, but his words were solemn.

“Amy.”

He nodded. “I know, sweetie.”

“What are you doing here?”

“To tell you your time has come. It is time to die.”

I remembered this. We had done this before. “No.” I took a step back. “No. Not yet.”

“There are no more choices left to play.” He sat up and spread his hands wide.

“Yes, there are.” I pointed to the open class catalog. “That thing is filled with different classes. Different choices. Different outcomes.”

He shook his head slowly. “Not for you.”

“I’ll quit school. Move back home. Move to another state. Another country. Those are different choices. I can still do those.” My feet shuffled further back.

Aeron steepled his fingers and shook his head again.

“What do you mean no?”

“Just that. No.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Everyone always says that.”

“I’ve always had a choice before.”

“They always say that, too. While it may have been true before, that’s no longer the case. You see, before this, you had time.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” I took another step back, edging my way to the door.

Aeron looked at his nonexistent watch. “It means you have about…oh, five, maybe ten minutes, give or take. No choice you make would change what will happen then.”

“So why am I back here again?”

He shrugged with his liquid grace. “Not my department.”

“You’re just the choices guy?” my lips asked, recalling something he said once before.

He smiled and tilted his head. “And occasionally the guide guy when the situation requires. Which it will here soon enough.”

“So this is it? There’s nothing else I can do? Surely there’s something. Just tell me!”

“Sweetie,” he leaned forward, “you’ve had every chance in the world. You lived to be ninety once before. You’ve had children and grandchildren. Progeny. Husbands and lovers. You’ve had good work, meaningful work, fame, and fortune. You’ve had it all. And every chance, it has never been enough for you.” He smirked, shaking his head. “You, foolish, foolish girl. Through it all, you never once thought to ask what it would cost you. Never once. You got close once, though. I’ll give you that. Right after…oh, what’s his name? Mark. Right after Mark. You almost asked then. You were this close.” He held up his fingers. “But, nope. Just ended up barreling straight through like you always do. Isn’t there supposed to be a saying about looking before you leap?”

No. No. This couldn’t be happening. It was getting harder to breath as I choked on the terrible truth. He was right. What had I done?

“Each choice, as all choices do, come at a price….Time.”

My hand touched the cool door handle. I could change this. I could fix this.

“You have no more time to barter with. You’ve used it all up. Every choice you ever made. Every decision. Every keystroke at that computer brought you one step closer to this point. To this ending.” He stood growing taller, flowing and malleable. He held out his hand. “Take my hand, sweetie.”

“No!” I spat the word at him, pushing the handle down. This would not be the end. Not for me. I raced down the hall, refusing to look behind. He could chase me all he wanted. I was not going to take his hand. Past the elevators, I rounded for the stairs.

I made it down the first flight, feet familiar with the rise and turns of the ancient steps.

“Sweetie!” Aeron’s voice echoed down the stairwell.

I needed to move faster. Hands grabbed the rails and my feet jumped. Taking four steps at once was nothing new.

My heel caught and slipped. I screamed as the world spun helter-skelter. Each step dug painfully into my body, arms and legs hopelessly tangled and unable to slow my fall. Something gave in my neck with a loud crack.

The world went dark.

And all around me the word, “Sweetie.”

Categories
Fantasy Genre

Dragon Born

It was dark in the cave. A soft huffing was Heather’s only warning.

“It’s okay, Korro. It’s me. I’m here to check on Mari and the kits.”

The huffing subsided and Heather heard scale shifting on rock. Satisfied all was safe, she lit her lantern, flooding the space with honeyed light.

Curled up against the far wall was Mari, a young female dragon. Her yellow-green scales shimmered in the dancing light. She lifted her head to regard the human woman who approached her with reflective black eyes.

“How are we doing today, Mari?” Heather asked, sitting the lantern down.

Mari’s head bobbed up and down, moving with serpentine grace. She slid her tail back, exposing six eggs in a small nest of sand and rock. The first generation of dragon kits to be born in this world.

Before approaching them, Heather stopped by Mari’s head. She pressed her forehead against the dragon’s, scratching behind the eye ridge. “I am glad to see you’re feeling well today. Korro is taking good care of you, isn’t he?”

A snout bumped her shoulder. She turned and pressed her forehead against the mighty Korro, a beast of red and purple magnificence. “Yes, yes, Korro. It is good to see you again, too. Now, let’s take a look at the kits, yes?”

Under the watchful eye of both parents, Heather dropped gently and slowly to her knees, holding her own full belly. Matthew didn’t like her traveling so close to the coming of their child, but Korro and Mari needed her. They were the only dragons with a clutch of viable kits and she was only dragonologist.

Heather bent close, her green eyes making careful note of the changes since her last visit two weeks ago. The shells were still intact and showed no signs of stress. The colors were lighter, taking on an almost translucent hue. If she angled the light, she was sure she’d be able to see the tiny kits inside.

“I’d say we’re getting close, aren’t we, yes?” Heather asked. She sat back on her heels, wincing and rubbing just below her ribs.

Korro’s head snaked down, coming even with Heather’s. His head tilted slightly to the side and he blinked.
“I’m fine, Korro. Just my baby. He’s active and space is at a premium.” She turned to Mari, “There are many a day lately that I envy you, Mari. No lie.”

She took several deep breathes, breathing through the discomfort as her baby kicked. He always seemed to be more active when she visited the dragons. She sat, putting herself closer to the eggs and pulled a log book from its satchel. “May I?”

Mari settled down, relaxed and at ease. It was the closest thing to permission she’d get.

Heather smiled. “Thanks.” Her fingers trailed over the eggs, feeling their smooth, almost silky texture. “Soon, soon, yes?” She decided to start with the orange egg she called Vela.

There was still so little known about dragons. One day they had been no more than stories and myths. The next, the world woke up to their existence. Scientists were still scratching their heads at that one. Heather, for her part, was content to let them do so. She was satisfied living her childhood dream. Who else in all of history got to study real live dragons for a living?

She picked up each egg in turn. Inside she could see each tiny kit, perfect miniatures of their parents. “As far I can tell, they are doing beautifully well, you both….Weights have increased across the board for the most part. Shells are getting thinner. Hatching could be any day now.”

Korro and Mari looked at her with their endless eyes.

Heather reached out to pick up the last egg. It was pure black, even now, making it all but impossible to see the kit she called Armon inside. This one intrigued her, and the rest of the growing dragon community, the most. Armon lacked the jeweled tones seen in the other eggs. Of all the dragon’s cataloged, none had black in their scales. Speculation buzzed across the chats. Was it a new color variation, something within norms, birth defect, or sign of illness? This egg was also the smallest and lightest of its siblings. Was it possible for dragons to hatch runts? So much they did not know. So much to learn.

Her fingers brushed over Armon and her baby jerked, bringing on a contraction. Heather doubled over, mouth gaping. Her baby kicked again. And again.

Armon began to rock in time, matching her baby’s movements.

The second contraction hit.

Her water broke.

Heather tried to push herself up and fell backward against Korro, who had come up behind her. Mari’s head rose, her eyes regarding her. Heather glanced over to the eggs.

They were all rocking. Were they hatching? Now?

Be at ease.

Heather started, looking up into Korro’s eyes. Did he just speak? There were no records of dragon’s speaking. Dragons were intelligent creatures like dogs, yes. But none had ever spoken. They didn’t have the physiology to allow it.

Be at ease, the words rumbled again in her mind, rocks tumbling down the mountainside.

It’s time, another voice said, as lightning flashes across the deep ocean.The Dragon Herald is coming. And our kits are eager to greet him…Especially Armon.

Heather looked at Mari.

The dragon’s snout brushed her shoulder. We are with you, Heather. As you have been with us.

Heather’s lips parted to speak, but another contraction stole her words.

Be at ease. Let the Herald come. We have searched the worlds and waited long.

Heather moaned, fingers digging into the soft dirt. Her whole body shuddered as her mind fought with what was happening. Dragon’s didn’t talk. They were nothing more than massively overgrown lizards.

So why was she suddenly hearing voices? Why did they seem to be coming from Korro and Mari? What was going on?
The birthing grabbed her, commanded her, and ended all further thought.

Time unmarked later, Heather rested against Mari’s flank. She was weak and exhausted, but content. She and her son had made it through the birthing journey safe. In her arms, he slept, sated from his first meal.

Circled about her were Korro, Mari, and the tiny kits. All had hatched during her son’s birth. Closest was Armon, jet black from tip to tip. His snout brushed against her son’s arm. Heather had tried to push him away, to give some space. But each time, the kit had come back as if he could not stand being parted from her son. Since he caused no harm or panic, Heather relented.

Watching them, she knew, a new had era dawned for dragons and humans both. At the center of it, all would be her son and Armon. And his would be a life filled with dragons.

Categories
Fantasy Genre

Your Father’s Song

Be still, my child. Be still and listen to the lullaby your father sings for you. Listen closely. Can you hear? The gentle lapping of the waves upon the shore. His voice is there, in the deep. His message of love for you.

Listen. I will tell you, he is not gone.Your father is here, my child, my love. He is here with us right now, upon this darkened shore. Do you see the glints of light upon the water? How they dance upon the waves like splinters of fallen stars? Those are your father’s eyes, watching to make sure you are safe.

Feel the water, here. Do you feel the bubbles as they dance between your fingers? That is your father’s hand reaching out for yours. His promise that he is always here and ready to embrace you. You will never be alone or without him, my child. Can you feel him?

He washed upon the shore one night, a blacker night than this. The storms brought him here to me. The land gave him form to walk upright and be seen amongst men. The sea made flesh, encircled and contained, but only for the passage of a season. He is not a man as you will come to know men to be. He is and always will be a creature of the mighty and terrible sea.

The others in the village thought him nothing more than a shipwrecked sailor. Dismissed, they called him crazy; sun struck and mad from thirst. They did not try to understand. Such is the way of the people of the land; hard and unyielding. Hush now and still. Do not think I condemn, nor do I wish you to look down upon them for their weaknesses. They are, as all creatures, nothing more than mere echo of that which gives them breath.

Never forget, my child, for as much as you are water, the land, too, lives on in you.

Perhaps their blindness was a gift, enabling me to see. For daring to look closer, I saw the storms and stars reflected in his gray eyes. I heard the water in his voice. I felt the embrace of the sea.

Even as I grew to love him, I knew he was never mine to keep. He could not stay. The ocean cannot abide in one place for long. Its nature is a thing of motion, constantly reaching, exploring, expanding. It can brush against the land, a quick caress but nothing more. Such was the time your father and I shared. Moments stolen from the vaults of time and secreted away; land and sea mixing and embracing, entwined.

Promises of fidelity and to be forever by my side he could not give. They were never his to offer. But he did not leave me empty. Instead, he gave me you. You are a token of himself; a gift left as a seashell upon the shore. I hear him in your voice. I see him in your eyes. The salt of the sea is the salt of your blood. You are the very best of him, our precious one.

Though you are but still a babe, the restlessness in your storm-gray eyes promise one day I will have to give you to the sea. You will follow his ways and touch distant shores that I will never see or know. I only pray when that day comes, I will be strong enough to entrust you fully to your father’s care. I only ask you take care to remember me; here upon the earthen shore and to return to me when you can.

But for a while yet, be still here within my arms, and listen to your father’s song.

Categories
Fantasy

Sage’s Choice

Sebastian leaned back in the chair and threw his legs upon the corner the solid oak desk. Gray eyes watched his friend pace and fidget, worrying the hem of his jacket and the collar of his shirt. “And this is why I’m glad I’m not you.”

“How kind.” The answering voice was dry and devoid of any and all humor.

A faint smile pulled the corners of his lips up. “I know.”

His friend, best friend, the Crowned Prince Gilleon Marlus Harthian of the Emerald Highlands, paused before the full length mirror in the room, feet spread apart. He leaned forward, fingers fumbling with the mound of fabric and the emerald stick pin at his neck. “Damn collar. I can’t get it to sit right.”

“Relax. It’s not like anything important is going to be happening in the next hour.”

As the old saying went, if looks could kill, Sebastian was certain that he would be beyond the realm of the dead right now.

“If you wanted someone to whisper sweet platitudes and fret with you, you should have asked someone else like Harry to be here.”

The roles reversed as Gilleon smirked at him in the mirror’s reflection. “I know. It was highly encouraged in fact.”

“Of that, I have little doubt. I can hear your mother now. Why don’t you pick Harry to be your Oath Keeper? He’s a good, stable boy.”

“Would she have been wrong?”

Sebastian flashed a lupine smile, eyes glinting. “Of course not. If there is one thing your gentle mother is, it is that she’s always right.” He steepled his fingers before his face, “Honestly though, I am glad I’m not you.”

Gilleon gave up on his collar, pulling instead on the bottom his jacket. “With privilege comes responsibility.” The words sounded old, route, long since drilled by countless mentors, headmasters, and tutors. At what point did words lose their meaning? When did they become nothing more than pointless touchstones, used not for their message or wisdom, but to steel the nerve as chants did a warrior before battle?

“And apparently the lack of ability to chose one’s own wife.”

“The Tests will ensure a proper match is made. I have been Tested and I have no doubt that Freesia Tested all the others thoroughly as well.”

Sebastian noted fingers dance along the jacket, smoothing non-existent wrinkles. “Are you saying that convince me or yourself?”

Gilleon’s answer came as a raised eyebrow and frown.

He had overstepped his bounds. If the reprimand bothered him, it never crossed the lines of his face. He sat up and pushed himself smoothly to his feet.

“Remember, you are the one who asked me to be here this day.” Sebastian made short work of the distance between him and a small serving table with wine and refreshments. He poured a glass and handed it to Gilleon. “I am but a minor noble in your father’s court.”

“Hardly minor. Your family stewards nearly a fifth of the land.” Gilleon took a long drink, nearly draining the cup, before handing it back.

“As exciting as that sounds,” Sebastian conceded, taking the glass to refill it again, “I’m still dismissed by practically everyone in court.” He poured a second glass for himself.

“That might change if you followed the rules every once in awhile.”

“But where’s the fun in that?”

“Where indeed?”

The two friends smiled at each other over the rims of their drinks.

“What if I don’t like her?” Gilleon blurted.

“That afraid you’ll end up with the fair lady Tylinda?” Sebastian teased, “But everyone has been Tested, correct? And Testing is supposed to ensure a most noble, worthy, and blessed matching. Besides, it’s a beautiful day. Surely that in itself must be a good omen. Or do you not trust our wise King’s Sage?”

Gilleon’s face drained to a blank mask. He let the silence speak the words he could not.

Sebastian nodded in sympathetic understanding. To be so trapped by one’s station and at the mercy of other’s choices was nigh intolerable. A gilded cage, no matter how comfortable, was still a cage.

He gripped his friend’s shoulder, gray eyes serious, “For all his faults, the Sage knows people. He also knows that his life and position depends upon our nation’s prosperity and your future happiness. I may have no faith in his Tests and riddles and rhythms, but I do have faith in his self-interest to keep his comfy life. I think it’s safe to say you’ll be safe from the, how should we say, tender cares of Tylinda.”

A rare true smile graced Gilleon’s face, lighting his features. “And this is why you are here and not Harry.” He gripped Sebastian’s forearms tightly, almost to the point of bruising. He clung like a man desperate not to drown.

Perhaps he was.

Sebastian barked out a short laugh. He may indeed be nothing more than a minor lord in the court, and one of disrepute, but he and he alone held the keys to Gilleon’s friendship and trust. Would they have allowed him to be the whipping boy all those years ago if they had known the bond of friendship that would emerge?

Sebastian doubted it. The fourth son in his family, he had been meant to be a throwaway child; one son to inherent, one to war, one to scholar. That was all that was needed in a lord’s home. So what was left to a lad of birth too noble for less but too low to be more?

Whipping boy to the prince was the suitable answer.

“It will be okay, Gilleon.”

Gilleon’s eyebrows furrowed. “What did you do?”

Sebastian brought a finger to his lips.

“Sebastian.”

He was saved from having to answer by the steward’s arrival. The Ceremony of Handfasting was about to start. It was time for Gilleon to meet his future queen.

The ceremony was long and vapid just like every ceremony that had ever been before it and every one that would ever come after it. Freesia, the King’s Sage, droned on and on about the wisdom of the gods, purposes of the Tests, and how glorious was the prepared match for the kingdom and the Crowned Prince. Dull, dull, dull.

The most interesting part of the whole thing was watching Gilleon as he tried, as unobtrusively as possible, to determine Sebastian’s secret. Every time, he merely redirected his prince back to the event, giving him nothing more than a smile. That at least was amusing.

Hours later, the pinnacle of the Ceremony had come. It was time to announce the Crowned Princess to be. All the Ladies that been Tested began to preen, clasp hands, smooth gowns, and let forth sighs enough to be audible in the large hall. Every one certain that she would be the one selected. They eyed Gilleon like a rancher eyed his cattle. It disgusted Sebastian.

Freesia picked up an ornate scroll and held it aloft. Upon that scroll was the name of the chosen lady. All attention was dutifully focused upon it. A mouse scurrying at the far end of the hall would have been heard it was that quiet. No one wanted to miss the next words spoken. The future and fate of the kingdom rested upon those words.

Sebastian reached forward and discreetly grasped Gilleon’s elbow. Tenison was so high, his arm nearly trembled with it.

“The gods have guided and the Tests have confirmed,” Freesia intoned, “she who will be Crowned Prince Gilleon’s wife and our next Crowned Princess is known as…Lady -” This close Sebastian had a front row seat to the confusion that swept across the King’s Sage’s face and the falter in his voice. “Lady Analyn.”

To a one, the whole hall erupted in confused mummers. The Princess’ least Handmaiden raised her head in shock upon hearing her name. Gilleon’s eyes locked with hers.

She had never been Tested.

Sebastian leaned forward. “I told you not the worry.”

Slowly, Gilleon turned to look at him.

He grinned at his best friend. “Sometimes you just don’t need some stuffy Test to know a good and proper match. I have no faith in the King’s Sage to realize that. But the Prince’s Sage…Now that’s someone I’d trust.”

“Sebastian,” Gilleon hissed.

“You’re welcome. Now go and meet your bride. She’s waiting.” With a gentle push, Sebastian encouraged Gilleon onward towards the only woman he’d ever taken a fancy and a liking to.

Gilleon would no doubt chew him out later for messing with the Tests, the Ceremony, and practically the whole future of the kingdom. But that was fine by him. As long as his prince was happy and his needs were met, that was all that mattered. Seeing the pure joy on Gilleon’s face as he clasped hands with his lady made everything he had risked to change that damned scroll worth it.

Anything for his prince. Anything at all.