Argent Stag, Silver Rose

Chapter One: Woodland Interlude

Yak, yak, yak . . . I've forgotten how much a bevy of noble women can talk when you get them together. Even so, I have to put up with them. Otherwise, I wouldn't have an excuse to have the one woman I do want there to be there. The sun is bright and in my eyes, so I take a moment to give my mount a signal to halt and lift my gloved hand up to shield my emerald eyes from the bright glare. It's too early yet to suggest heading into the woods for a pleasant ride. I have to wait a while longer as the peasants and servants accompanying us scatter around the grassy field and flush out what prey could be waiting there. I can hear the soft rustle of their passage just barely, simply because the bevy of wives back there are gossiping about the latest fashion trends.

"Looking for something, Mal?"

I drop my gaze and then smile, recognizing the voice. Cathal, my manservant and close friend. "Not really. Maybe some way to get the ladies more quiet."

Cathal laughs a bit. "Ladies are always the loudest when they're having fun."

I can't help but blush faintly at his remark. I have yet to truly know that myself, though what I heard in my sister's room the other night has certainly made me wonder. And thinking about that makes me blush a bit more, much to my discomfort.

I can't believe how these women talk. They chatter on about the most trivial things as if they're of earthshaking importance. It doesn't help that they keep looking at me as if expecting me to join in their silly babble--when they're not looking at me like I'm some scandalous creature. I just don't see what's so wrong with the way I look today. The open-sided surcoat is very comfortable, and the jade-green color goes well with the rose-pink undertunic. My black trousers are really more like a skirt anyway, being so blousy and billowy, tucked into my boot tops. It's not as if I'm parading around naked . . .

My falcon shifts on my gloved hand, and I croon to the magnificent creature gently. She's just as beautiful as Malaquin promised.

Tiring of the stupid prattling, I urge my mare forward, toward Malaquin. I'd far rather be in his company than suffer the idle tongues of the nobles' wives.

"Was it wise to bring your sister along?"

I frown at Cathal, wondering what he meant by that. But before I can react and ask him to better explain himself before I lose my temper, I hear the shrill whistle of the lead beater. My magnificent stallion's ears twitch forward--Sable is jet black, marked only by a white blaze on his forehead, from one of the best bloodlines in Aleona--and the rest of the great lords around me focus on the sound. The beaters are in place, and are ready to start creating a lot of noise by pounding their hard clubs onto the field's earthen surface to scare out any birds lying in hiding. I smile at my sister's approach. She's as sleek and beautiful as the falcon perched on her hand, her outfit showing off her womanly body to great advantage, though I know she must have created quite a stir with wearing the trousers. However, I must agree with her choice. Heaven damn me if I should want to see my sister fall and break her neck because she's sitting sidesaddle. I feel better with her perched astride her mare.

I'm wearing a longer-skirted tunic of forest green, trimmed in gold and emerald braid, tight hose of deepest black clinging to my legs and black, knee-high boots on my feet. I have yet to earn the right to wear the spurs of knighthood on them.

"She's a falcon worthy of her mistress. Tired of the prattling of the other women, my sister?"

My white mare--a wonderful match for Malaquin's proud stallion--tosses her head at the shrill whistle, prancing a little in excitement. The falcon on my hand shifts as well, half-spreading her coppery wings, turning her head alertly despite the blinding hood. Reining Silk in next to Malaquin, I smile at him; Goddess, he's handsome today, far more handsome than any of the other men tagging along with us.

A blush heats my cheeks at Malaquin's compliment, and I toss my head. Not covered by a wimple or caught in a net, my long hair is pulled back into a silver clasp at the nape of my neck, and it ripples and dances with the toss. "Exhausted, dear brother. I can't understand how they can possibly waste every hour in the day by babbling on about every silly thing that pops into their empty heads." I look over to where the beaters are waiting. "Shall we see what sport awaits us?"

"Of course. Galeron! If you'd please attend Us?" I turn in my saddle, the creak of the leather accenting my movement, my queue of shimmering raven hair shifting--the regents are appalled that I'm letting it grow out like some uncivilized heathen, but I've found that if it's bound back, it doesn't get in the way, even under a coif and helm, and I like how I look with longer hair--as my eyes search for the Royal Falconer.

Galeron rides up on his sturdy bay-colored rouncy, my prized jerfalcon gripping the man's thick leather glove. Smiling in anticipation, I hold out my hand and the Falconer transfers control of the jesses to me as Arrow steps over to my hand, coaxed by the soft cooing I always do to greet my magnificent bird. Pulling my hand close to my torso, I gently stroke Arrow to keep him calm as Galeron looks around to the other lords and ladies, looking to see if they were ready to unhood their birds and prepare to let them take flight at what's beaten from the field. "I'm hoping for a few nice, plump pheasants. How about you, Madule?"

My eyes roam over to Malaquin's long queue, and I smile in pleasure. He'd kept his hair short for a while when we were children, but I had hinted that I would like to see him long-haired, and he'd evidently done as I wanted. As always.

The nobles are watching us. I can feel their eyes on my back, staring, speculating. I've already noted that a few of them look at me longer than the rest. The youngest of these special observers is probably almost thirty, and the others are older--all the way up to a portly oaf who must be in his fifties, mounted on a dappled gray horse that looks exhausted already from carrying his rider's bulk. I pity the poor animal, and my stomach churns at the thought of myself forced under that ponderous weight. No. Malaquin promised. I trust him--he won't send me off to marry someone like that.

I glance up at Malaquin's face as he speaks, and smile at him. "Pheasants sound nice. Perhaps a few rabbits, too?" I reach up to gently remove the hood that covers my falcon's fierce head.

"Well, we'll see what the birds down for us, won't we?" A smile still sits on my face as I too slip the hood from Arrow's head. "Now, Galeron."

I don't see the Falconer's nod, though I'm sure he gives me some form of acknowledgment. Being sovereign prince tends to do that, make others jump at your words, though the regents still think they're above me. Not for much longer, I think, my smile turning to a sly one. I hear Galeron's signal for the flushing to start, then the drumming sounds of the beaters as they begin to rouse the animals of the field with their noise. I look upward as various birds explode from the tall grass of the field, then set my sights on the rise of a pheasant. Carefully, carefully . . . There! That should give Arrow an indication which one I want. With a toss of my arm, I loosen the jesses, and Arrow darts upward with a proud cry at what he sees is prey.

I throw Malaquin a quick look, seeing the pheasant he's tracking so intently; then, a malicious spirit taking hold of me, I turn in my saddle quickly to glance at the other nobles. The youngest of the men who seem so interested in me is also obviously focusing on a bird; I set my sights on it and croon softly to Cinder, then toss her expertly from my glove. She's far swifter and better-trained than the knight's bird; a flare of coppery wings as she streaks through the air, and she dives to bring down the pheasant with perfect precision.

The knight's falcon obviously isn't very well-trained. Rather than veering off when my Cinder brings down the prey, the stupid creature screams in challenge and swoops to attack. Needless to say, that really makes me angry. I love my falcon, that pretty gift from my brother, and I won't let some dolt's ill-mannered pet hurt her. With an angry shout, I dig my heels into Silk's sides, urging her across the field toward the place where Cinder is being threatened by the other falcon.

My sister's shout brings my attention there, and I wonder what's gone wrong when I suddenly find myself looking at her back and Silk's rear end. Yes, my sister's mare is just as well-blooded as my Sable, but it's never exactly a pretty sight to be looking at a horse's rear--though there's a momentary, irreverent whisper that my twin's rear might be very nice indeed. I shake my head at that, pushing the thought away, ashamed of the flask of wine that even now sits tied to my saddle. Cheeks reddening slightly, I scan the skies for Arrow just in time to see him spiral down to the ground with the pheasant I'd sighted. A tap of my heels to Sable's flanks and I'm riding off to capture my prize and reward my jerfalcon for a job well done.

I rise up in my stirrups as I ride over there, and I don't even realize that Malaquin probably has a nice peek at my bottom. Shouting angrily again, I charge at the knight's falcon--I can hear him yelling behind me--and chase it into flight, away from Cinder. She's still hunched possessively over the pheasant; her training's so good that she didn't even release her prey yet. Swinging off of Silk, I crouch down to give Cinder the command to release, then take her back onto my glove and give her a bit of meat from the little pouch at my belt. Picking up the pheasant, I admire the plumpness of its flesh and the fine sheen of its feathers, then tuck it into a saddlebag. Just as I pull myself up into the saddle--always a bit hard with Cinder on my fist--I hear a chilling sound from the forest's edge, not far away.

Silk whinnies and shies nervously, and I clutch at the saddle to keep from falling. Balanced precariously with my free hand on the saddlebow and one foot in a stirrup, I turn my head slowly toward the source of the threatening sound.

The boar's really not all that big, as boars go, but he probably weighs two or three times what I weigh. Worse, there's a whitish froth around his mouth; as the beast gathers itself, I glimpse the swollen, black-fleshed wounds over its shoulders. It's injured, and obviously diseased; a boar is never a pleasant enemy at the best of times, but a hurt, crazy one is a terrible threat.

I barely have time to land myself in the saddle when the animal screams and charges, tusks drooling froth; Silk rears in fright and bolts, and Cinder wisely leaps off my fist as I grab for the saddlebow with both hands to stay on. This is bad . . .

I frown as I slide from the saddle, my queue of dark hair swirling around me. Apparently there's been a dispute between a couple of the birds over prey, but I'm confident my sister can handle it. Just like he should, Arrow's spreading his wings over the kill; I smile and give him the soft commands that have him hopping onto my hand and snatching at the meat I hold in the other. My smile gets brighter as I see that the pheasant is a nice one indeed, and I feel quite proud of Arrow for bringing it down.

But I don't get a chance to claim the plump bird. The commotion off to the side gets my attention. Realizing that Silk's bolting and hearing the sounds of some enraged animal, I give Arrow the call to take wing and toss my hand up, then fumble at the sword sheathed to my saddle. Damnation, no one thought to bring a spear, and I swiftly discover that that's one big oversight as it's apparent that a hurt and ill boar is in the field, probably hiding in agony, hoping to either heal or die.

I manage to stay in the saddle, at least, but when I glance back, I can see the boar charging after me. Silk is terrified, just trying to get away from the angry animal, and nothing I do soothes her. She bolts into the forest, forcing me to crouch low over her neck to avoid being swept off by a low branch. My fear and alarm is no doubt pounding at Malaquin by now.

From the shouts behind, out in the field, I have to assume that the boar didn't pursue me into the trees again. It's probably going after the other hunters now, or more likely, the quarry that their hawks have brought down. Boars eat nearly anything, and a crazed one is likely to be even less picky than most--and an injured beast is often desperate to get at the food that it can't easily get for itself anymore.

I try to sit up a little, to deepen my seat in order to give Silk the signal to slow down and collect herself, but I pick a bad time for it. The branch catches me straight across the chest from shoulder to shoulder, plucking me off the mare as neatly as you please; fortunately, Silk had been slowed by the density of the trees already, and the fall doesn't really hurt anything more than my bottom and most definitely my pride.

Panting, I get up, dusting leaves off my trousers. Silk is a fading white flame among the dimness here beneath the trees. A glint of light catches my eye off to one side, and I go in that direction; I'm surprised and pleased to find a small pond--not much bigger than a footbath, really, though quite deep--there in a little clearing, a stray beam of sunlight filtering through the trees to sparkle on the clear water. Sitting down on the thick carpet of green moss around the pool and leaning back against a tree, I sigh and brush a few more leaves out of my hair. This is so embarrassing.

With a soft ring of steel, my sword comes free. At least Sable's very well trained, able to keep his head even in the chaos and frenzy of battle. He doesn't bolt; instead, he circles around me, ready to cave in the angered boar's head if it gets too close.

Of course, the fact that I'm on the ground and vulnerable makes the rest of the great lords start riding to my defense. Their wives, however, are worse than useless, screaming and riding off in the general direction of the castle. At least they have their own flock of servants and peasants to watch over them in their retreat.

I can feel my heart pounding in my chest as I stand in the field, the breeze blowing my bound hair as I face down the angry pig. It's not sure about me, and I'm far from sure about it. I might be ruler of Aleona, but I'm also just a lad of seventeen. Light glitters off my sword as I hold my ground, waiting to see what the boar does.

A screaming squeal and a charge, and I feel my heart leap in my throat. Even with a spear a boar's been known to keep on fighting, wounding dogs or men that get too close to those deadly tusks. I feel a frission of fear as I hold my ground, legs tensing, trying to time this just right.

Just as it seems the pig's going to run me down, I move as swift as I can, bracing the hilt of my sword against the solid ground. Suddenly faced with a glittering point of steel, the boar can't stop; momentum makes the creature impale itself on my blade, and I let go and try to leap aside the moment I feel the force of the impact, but I'm not fast enough. The boar literally runs over me, my sword in its chest, and I end up rolling in the grass, feeling the pounding of little pig feet all over me.

Luckily for me, Duke Agricol, the second-in-command of the Council of Regents, is right there, having been one that immediately came rushing to my aid. He stabs at the enraged animal with his own sword, and the boar decides to chase after this new source of pain instead of stamping me into the ground.

"Malaquin, you're a blamed idiot!" Cathal yells in my ear as he pulls me from the ground and hauls me to a safe distance, battered and bruised.

"I'm a living one though," I counter, a weak smile on my face.

"Barely," I hear him mutter.

I wrap my arms tightly around myself, closing my eyes. I can feel Malaquin there, sense his fear and determination . . . and his courage. My heart beats harder as I realize what he's doing, and my head swims with dizzying adoration. My brother is so brave; he knows as well as anyone that boars are terribly dangerous. One that's already been injured and is obviously diseased, like this beast, are even worse--unpredictable and seemingly bereft of any instinct of self-preservation. Most animals will flee a hunter, unless they're trying to protect mates, offspring, or territory; a creature afflicted with the frothing madness, like this one, will launch a mindless attack.

I cringe against the tree and let out a soft cry into the still forest air, feeling Malaquin knocked to the ground by the animal, the slamming of its hooves into him. At least the beast is moving a bit too quickly to put its full weight on him and break something. I sense his relief, then. The animal's going to be brought down, and Malaquin himself isn't badly hurt.

Still, while he's safe and sound, I'm lost in the blasted forest, my horse has run off--probably back to her stall; Silk is bright enough to know to go home--and the emergence of the boar from this forest doesn't make me very confident in its safety.

It takes Agricol and Baron Rostelm--the youngest member of the Council and one that has an interest in my sister that I'm aware of--a few blows with their steel to put the animal out of its misery. Having noticed the frothing spittle, Cathal makes a big deal out of looking for any breaks in my skin; if the foam managed to get into my blood, I would have a serious chance of becoming just as mad. I hold my breath in true fear as I wait for Cathal to give me the verdict, and it's absolute relief to hear from my dusky-blonde servant that I appear to be only bruised, nothing more. I look around then, catching Madule's worry, then tense my jaw when I see she's not around.

"What the hell did you think you were doing, Your Highness?" The duke's getting ready to give me a major tongue-lashing, I can see, but worry for my twin takes precedence in my mind.

I hold up a hand, an order for him to stop right there. "Has anyone seen what happened to Her Royal Highness?"

"Her mare took her into the woods, Sire," Rostelm answers, pointing in the direction Silk must have taken.

"Stay here and collect the falcons, then make sure the women made it back to the palace in one piece. I'll go get Madule." I glare at everyone, wanting them to be sure to know that I won't tolerate anyone questioning my decision.

No one does, and I take Sable's reins, leading him off in the same direction, using my bond to her to guide me.

Since I'm here anyway, and it might take a while for Malaquin to rescue me--and he will rescue me, I know it--I glance around for a moment. I really don't expect anybody to be there, of course, but it never hurts to be cautious. I'm not technically supposed to know how to do this sort of thing, but I couldn't spend all my time learning the tasks that make up a household.

I close my eyes and draw the image in my mind, then reach out with a questing tendril of thought until I find the creature that fits the image. It's only a few moments before he steps through the underbrush at the edge of the clearing.

He must be quite old; his deep brown coat is dusted with silver-white, and looks a bit ragged. Despite his age, though, he's magnificent; the rack of antlers that he carries is breathtaking, spreading out over his noble head in proud, curving branches.

I stare at him for long moments as he lowers that splendidly crowned head to drink from the pool. It worked--it truly worked! I could do it! I could summon the King Stag for Malaquin! I give myself a little squeeze in pure happiness, still gazing at the aged stag.

He looks back at me with liquid brown eyes that seem to hold an eternity of wisdom; we stare at each other for what seems to be a very long time before the faint cracks of twigs breaking disturb the quiet. The stag lifts his head alertly, then turns and bounds easily off into the bushes with a flick of his tail. Tension seeps into me, then fades away as I realize that my prince has finally come.

"Malaquin? Malaquin? I'm over here!"

The greenwood closes around me, and I look around, an awareness of something timeless surrounding me. I can't help but wonder how it's going to be, in a month, when I don the fat and skin and horns of a stag in order to hunt and kill the King Stag who I am to become. To be a part of something so ancient almost frightens me, yet it also thrills me, because I was born for that moment.

The feeling of timelessness remains as Sable and I walk through the quiet woods, the sensation of my twin's presence getting closer and closer. A small twig cracks under my black leather boot, a sound that's soon followed by Madule's voice. My face lighting up in joyful relief, I start running to the sound of her call, Sable trotting behind me. "Hold on, Madule! I'll be right there!"

When I break through the underbrush, I stop and look around in awe. The place is gorgeous, like a natural cathedral of the Goddess.

It's beautiful, true, but maybe only a chapel--the clearing's no more than about seven feet at its widest point. Still, the sunlight falls on the tiny pond and reflects from its glassy surface, sending shimmers of light over the dark tree trunks.

I stand up as Malaquin emerges from the treeline, smiling a bit shakily. "I'm sorry, Malaquin. Silk bolted. Are you all right?"

"I'll be fine enough. I'm only battered and bruised. Are you all right?" I take a moment to loosely tether Sable to a low-hanging branch, giving him enough head to munch on the tender leaves in the immediate area, then half-run, half-limp over to my sister, where I then wrap my arms around her and give her a big hug, glad she seems to be all right.

"Yes. Just a little shaken." I bury my face against Malaquin's shoulder, clinging to him tightly, starting to tremble. I had been afraid, not just for myself, but for him too. My nerves feel strung as tight as harpstrings. My voice is a bit muffled when I speak into his chest. "Do you have anything to drink with you? The water's nice, but I think I need something a little stronger to help me calm down."

I certainly have something that will calm you down. Another flash of guilt goes through my mind, at what I've been contemplating. Ever since I heard her . . . I haven't been able to shake it from my thoughts for long at all, and I'm sure it was only my overactive imagination that made me think it was my name she called.

"Hmm. I do, actually. I brought a flask of red wine with me. It's tied to Sable's saddle." I reach up and stroke her hair, feeling how soft and fine it feels, much like my own. "Would you like me to get it for you?"

I can't help but close my eyes and purr softly at the gentle stroke of his fingers through my hair; I love touching him and being touched by him. Perhaps it's another "twin thing"; after all, we'd spent nine months enwombed together, in constant physical contact.

"Yes, Malaquin, please? I'd be ever so grateful . . ."

I can't resist her soft plea. I never could, really. After we were orphaned, we really only had one another on our side. "Stay here," I whisper to her, then step away, turning to walk back over to my jet-black stallion.

My hands tremble slightly as I take the flask into my grasp and untie the leather that holds it there. What am I doing? How could I even contemplate this enough to have brought drugged wine for her? Yet, I smile and walk slowly back to her, making sure I have the smelling salts still in the pocket of my tunic. I'll need something to rouse her when it comes time to return.

I only want to look, to see what my beloved twin, the one that used to look so much like me, has blossomed into. That's all, but it's still wrong to even want to look at her like that. I know she'll be blamed far more than I would if it became known, but this way, it's all my fault, not hers.

I can live with that.

I give her a smile and hold the flask out to her. "Here, dear sister. I'm sure this will make you feel relaxed."

As he steps away, I sit down slowly on the thick, cushiony moss again, leaning against a time-smoothed rock near the edge of the pool. Watching him walk over to the stallion, I can't help but sigh a bit in admiration; he and the horse do suit each other well, and my brother's looking quite striking today in those clothes. My own short surcoat and rose-colored undertunic are a little mussed thanks to my ignomious fall from Silk's back, and he's a little disheveled himself from being run down by the boar.

Returning that bright smile, I reach up to take the flask. "Thank you, Malaquin. You're so thoughtful and sweet . . ."

The stopper comes loose easily, and I take a sip; the wine's still cool, rather than being heated by the flask's exposure to the sun, and it tastes wonderfully sweet. I sigh in appreciation and take a longer, deeper drink, then another. Glancing up at Malaquin as I lower the flask a little, I give him another bright smile. "This is very good. Where did you find a wine this sweet and rich?" I giggle softly and drink again. "Have you been holding out on the rest of us, brother mine?"

I'm not sure what effect it's going to have on her. It's supposed to ease her gently into sleep, but I might have put too little in the wine, afraid to truly harm her. I grin at her question though, my emerald gaze watching her. "Not really. It's the wine I've set aside for the celebration after my successful feis next month. I wanted something special to drink as I toasted, at last, our true independence as adults. If you'd like, I'll give you a bottle you can have for your very own ahead of schedule."

I hesitate just a little at the mention of the feis. My plans are almost perfectly laid now, but there's still the chance that something could go wrong, and the idea worries me. Still, I nod in agreement with that sweet offer. "I'd love it, Malaquin . . ."

I'm almost startled when I yawn. Putting the stopper back into the flask, I hand it back up to him, then rub a hand across my forehead; the warm tingle of the wine is trickling through me, bringing a curious lassitude with it. "Oh . . ."

"I'll see to it, then. Only the best for my sister." It's a statement that I fully believe in.

It takes quite a bit of effort to not watch in concern and eagerness--yes, eagerness, though I'm probably damned for these feelings and impulses--as Madule yawns and hands the wine back to me. I set the flask down onto the mossy ground and reach out to put a hand on her shoulder. "Madule? Are you all right? Do you need to lie down?"

I nod, and that movement makes me feel as though my head might come off. My eyelids seem to be weighted with lead, and my voice sounds like it's coming from at least two feet away from me. "I . . . I think I should, Malaquin. That stuff's rather strong, and I drank it a bit too fast after all the excitement . . ."

My bones seem to melt, my muscles turning liquid; at least I'm already sitting down with that stone at my back. I can't fall down and hurt myself as my limbs go soft and unresponsive. "Sorry, Mal . . . I just need . . . a little rest. Then . . . then we can . . . go home . . ."

I had knelt down in the moss in order to hand her the flask, and I remained kneeling as I watched the drug in the wine take effect. "That's all right. I'll stay right here while you rest, beloved sister of mine," I whisper to her as I shift my position slightly to help her lie down on the soft, mossy ground.

Positioning her on the ground gives me an excuse to let my hands linger over her, to feel how soft her skin is where I touch it and how warm she is through her clothing. I then lean back on my haunches and just look at her, my emerald gaze going over her slowly.

She's beautiful, the most beautiful woman I've ever seen. Not even the princesses that have paid me visits already as prospective wives have quite compared to Madule's mystic beauty, though, regrettably, the one that did catch my interest fell ill and died.

I can hear his soft words, feel him easing me down onto the moss. It feels so good to just lie down and relax, drifting in a warm sea that flows against the shores of dreams. I don't know if I'm still awake or if I've really gone to sleep; the distinction isn't important. I'm probably very enticing as I lie there, raven hair shimmering against the moss, my woman's body a symphony of curves beneath the soft jade surcoat, rose undertunic, and loose black trousers.

Distantly, I recall the foreign princess. How I had hated her; I felt a jealous rage every time I saw Malaquin smile at her. How dare she? How dare she try to steal my brother's attention?

She deserved what I gave her . . .

She seems fast asleep, and for that, I'm glad. Those that want to take on the tenants of this new religion that bothers me would say that all sin lies in the fault of the woman. That I'm actually contemplating my own twin sister in a manner like this would be blamed on her, somehow, but she shouldn't have to bear the stain of my own choices. I want to see what she's become; the image of what she must look like pleasuring herself just won't go away and leave me be, and I feel a familiar tightening in my groin just recalling what her impassioned cries sounded like.

I shift slightly, easing some of the discomfort, then reach down to stroke the back of my hand across her cheek. "So beautiful. I have yet to see one that matches you in feminine radiance." I don't know why I say that out loud; I only know that I do.

That feels nice . . . as if someone's touching my face. I like that; there's something wonderful in a light, delicate touch on the soft skin of my cheeks, lips, even my eyelids. The voice sounds so far away. I'm surely dreaming it--that sweet praise of my peerless beauty. I'm not really all that vain, but it sounds so much like a lover's murmur that I enjoy the praise all the more.

I shift my legs again, a few stray strands of my raven hair falling forward as I let my hand trace the contours of her face. She looks so grown up now, as I gaze down at her, her face fresh with youthful bloom, but the underlying structure mature, not childish. When did she change so much on me? I have to wonder, yet I knew she was already changing when she stood before me in front of everyone and gave me the symbols of rulership.

I feel it's safe to talk to her, since she's asleep, to give a voice to these impulses that fill me, much to my dark enjoyment and my shame. She can't hear me, my innocent silver rose, so she remains sinless in this. "You sounded so much like you were enjoying yourself the other night. I wonder . . . Were you imagining hands other than your own on you?"

I feel suddenly hot as my mind wanders back to that memory that won't let me be. What had she been doing to herself? Almost of their own volition, I let my hands drift down and rest over the mounds of her breasts. They fit my hands perfectly, soft, supple, enticing under the layers of her clothing.

I drift along the shores of dream, listening passively to that voice without really hearing the words--just the gentle tone. The decision comes to me without hesitation; whoever owns that voice is someone I want. I feel a flash of guilt; should I really be so hasty in thinking of abandoning . . . of abandoning . . .


It's his voice that I hear, whispering those awed, enraptured words--the telltale words! He had heard me, as I had wanted; he had been listening as I stroked myself to arousal and climax, envisioning that it was him. He's touching me now; I can feel the weight of his hands, cupping my breasts. Had he ever touched that foreign slut-princess like this? Surely not. Surely . . .

I shouldn't be doing this, not with such carnal thoughts in my head. She's my twin sister, someone I should be protecting. . . Even as I mentally berate myself, I watch as my hands, seemingly of their own accord, slide down even lower, to her waist. I want to see, suddenly, what she looks like now. I can recall how she used to look as a child, for before we became "too old", we had often shared a bath in those long-ago, innocent days.

I unbuckle the belt at her waist, then slide up her short tunic and undertunic, letting my fingertips glide along her silken skin as I expose her upper body to my curious gaze. "It's still hard to think of you as a woman, with a woman's desires, Madule. I still think of you and I both as children, though I know better then that."

I'm definitely not a child any more, not some unopened, shy rosebud. I've blossomed, verdantly so; the cool forest breeze caresses bare skin, and I'm faintly aware that my nipples are reacting to the sudden chill in a predictable way. My breasts are round and full and firm with youth, even though they have a tendency to flatten and shift a bit under their own weight when I'm lying on my back.

Hearing those distant words, I almost want to cry; yes, I'm a woman, and I have all the passions of a woman. I had wanted to show him even as we were growing up, to compare and learn how different our bodies were becoming, but instead I'd been foolish enough to let the taboos and strictures of the adults around us keep me from following that impulse. Other men, like Baron Rostelm or that old fat lecher, have noticed that I've grown up into a beautiful woman; I had started to believe that my own dear brother might never notice.

My mouth goes dry as I watch the cold air make those rosy tips of her breasts tighten, and I have to swallow hard to open up my throat enough to keep breathing. So perfect, just begging to be touched. I know what it's like to have my own nipples erect from the cold and feel them brush against the fabric of my tunic, but hers are bigger than mine. Giving in to my lustful curiosity, I cup the bare flesh of her breasts in my hands and lightly rub the pads of my thumbs over those rosy peaks. Had she been doing this to herself the other night? Was this part of what had made her cry out so? It's an interesting contrast, her soft, pliable skin and the hard, rosy tips, so similar yet so very different from my own flat chest. "I wonder . . . Did you imagine hands on you, doing this, when you were moaning in pleasure?"

I'm barely aware I even say that out loud.

Distantly, I can feel the sensual caress on the tender skin, the sensitive tips of my breasts; only my own hands had ever touched there, and the feel of someone else doing it is utterly delicious. His voice is a murmur in the distance, and I wish that I could nod in confirmation. I imagined him doing it, as he is doing so now . . .

The tingly warmth of the wine deepens; my mind drifts despite my best efforts to remain focused. The memory comes to the surface--that damn foreign princess. Smiling at Malaquin, laughing with him, even daring to touch him--laying a hand on his, reaching up to brush a lock of his hair back from his face.

How I despised her. I did everything I possibly could to make sure they weren't left alone, but the regents quickly started coming up with things that I just had to do--things that kept me away from my brother and the wench. Ultimately, I managed to corner her when she was coming out of the suite that had been assigned to her.

"What makes you think my brother will ever marry you?" I had inquired, my voice brittle with cold courtesy.

"Because he will," the foreign slut had asserted with a smirk. She had pretended to such sweetness when she was with Malaquin, but I had seen through her like glass. "My family will offer a great dowry and a fine alliance, and the regents will make sure that the offers are accepted. The negotiations are already underway."

"No," I had spat, coldness giving way to hot anger. "You will never have my brother!"

"You can't stop the wedding," she had purred in reply.

I had grabbed her by the wrist, twisting painfully as I yanked her close, snarling into her face. "There can't be a wedding with no bride, my dear. You remember that."

That very night, I had slipped out of my room, climbing up the dusty stairs that led to a high tower room--little more than a storeroom, which no one visited. That was the place I claimed for my own; it was the place that I practiced the arts I had been learning without the knowledge of the regents or anyone else.

It was easy to spin the sickness into being, gripping the foreign slut's lungs with inflammation and fluid buildup. It would be even easier to point out that she was no doubt unused to the illnesses of our land . . .

She sleeps on the forest floor, innocently unaware of my sinful touching. I know it's not right to do this, but I swear I can't help myself. I want to see all of her, to gaze upon the woman she's become. One last caress I give to her lush breasts, then I let my fingers trail over the satiny surface of her ribs and abdomen, feeling the dichotomy of skin and firm muscle. It surprises me, slightly, to feel that she's in as firm of shape as I am under her feminine softness--not that I ever thought of my twin as weak.

My breath catches in my throat as my hands encounter the waistband of her full-cut trousers. It's a simple matter to untie the cord that holds them snugly around her waist, then to slip them over the flair of her hips. Slowly, I pull them down, feeling the pooling heat in my loins get even harder to bear as the rest of my sister's body is revealed to my wondering gaze.

Her legs are long, muscular and shapely, just as I figured they'd be. The most startling thing is that I find the triangle there between her thighs to be as smooth and bare as I recall it being as a child. Well aware of the nest of tight curls from which my own sex emerges, I find her smoothness a bit perplexing. Before I can stop myself, my hand darts down to run fingertips over the soft mound--and I realize, suddenly, that she must shave there as I shave my face. I find that a very intriguing discovery.

The warm trail of his fingers runs slowly down my belly, over the firm, healthy muscle there. I had been determined to be at least a little strong in my own right; it seemed wise to be able to protect myself, and I liked the way my body looked and felt when it was well-toned.

Cool air touches my legs; then there's a quick, unexpected touch at the sensitive flesh at the delta of my thighs, and the sensation is breathtaking. Malaquin . . . my brother is touching me, right there, where I've kept myself so clean and sleek . . .

Now that I have my hand there, I find I don't want to take it away, though I should. I should not be touching my dear sister, the one person whom I trust and who trusts me, like this. I feel shame burn in my cheeks; I know I've broken her trust in me doing this, but I find I don't really want to stop.

"What's it like for you to stroke yourself? You sounded like you get as much enjoyment out of the act as I do when I touch myself in that way," I softly whisper, my hand rubbing against her there. It feels so different, compared to my own body, and I feel my pulse throbbing in my groin and my temples just from the sight of her and the memory of her cries. The feel of her under my hand is, I'm ashamed to say, a pure delight.

I can hear Malaquin again, the shadows of memory fading at the darts of pleasure that race through me. Oh, Malaquin, Malaquin . . . yes, I do enjoy touching myself like that . . . and I can't help but shiver mentally at the thought of Malaquin using his hands on himself in a similar fashion.

I can still feel his hand between my legs, caressing with just the right amount of pressure, just the right speed. Even though I can't react consciously, I know that my body surely is responding to the intimate caress--I've found that I do become aroused quickly, with the right touches, and Malaquin's doing everything just right so far.

I rub against her petal soft skin, finding a dark sort of pleasure in fondling her so. A hint of dampness . . . Her body likes this, even though she sleeps? I find that interesting as well, then press against her harder, the length of my long, middle finger slipping into the cleft of her womanhood, rubbing her there in the same rhythm as the one I can feel pounding in my chest.

I find her slick and hot, startlingly so, within the folds of her clean-shaven sex, and just knowing what that means, that her body at least sees nothing wrong with what I'm doing makes me softly groan and shift my legs apart, trying to ease some of the pressure on my tightly confined shaft.

Oh, Goddess, he's touching right there, just at the right place. I know that my face is probably taking on a rosy flush, that my nipples are hardening a little more, that I'm becoming even damper. Where did he learn how to touch a woman like this? The idea of that foreign slut writhing with his hand between her legs sickens me; no, he couldn't have done this to her!

Faintly, I hear his groan. He must be liking this too . . .

I become aware of a hard nub swelling at my touch, protruding out slightly now from the soft, feminine folds of my sister's body. This must be what Cathal says is the true center of a woman's pleasure, that a wise man knows to touch a woman there if he cares about her enjoying the act. Part of me watches Madule's sightly flushed face as I press my finger against that unexpected hardness in the middle of molten, slick silk, concentrating my touch there as I almost idly wonder if my manservant is right. Some of my hair, pulled from my queue in the not-so-dignified tussle I had with the slavering boar, falls forward to tickle the sweaty surface of my cheek as I keep watching what my sleeping sister's body does.

My body's responding so quickly, so easily to him, but I can't so much as raise a hand. Is this a dream? Some utterly wonderful, erotic dream that I hadn't even dared imagine?

He's found that spot, that firm little pearl that sends concentrated bolts of pleasure up my back. He's so good at this, at figuring out just what to do to me; oh, Malaquin, I love you . . . I love . . .

Even though I can't consciously make a sound, I hear myself moan, hear the rapidity of my breathing. I'm getting so close . . .

Oh god, the sounds. My own breathing quickens more, my own situation getting harder to ignore, but I'm morbidly fascinated with the faint blush that covers my sister's exposed skin, her soft moans that sound so much like what I overheard from her room the other night. With every stroke, I know I'm damning myself to some sort of divine punishment, but I can't tear my gaze from Madule's body. She's so obviously enjoying it, even under the influence of the narcotic, and I find the sight the most erotic thing I've experienced yet. "Is this what you did to yourself the other night? Is this how you made yourself cry out and haunt my sleep with the memory of your pleasure?"

I don't expect her to answer my nearly breathless words as I keep my hand moving between her thighs, but I speak the words nevertheless.

He seems to know just what to do, just how to coax the responses from me. His voice comes again, asking those questions, sounding as if he's getting short of breath himself. I want him to know . . .

It takes a monumental effort. It seems like I'm trying to make someone else move for me--or like trying to persuade a stubborn mule to obey--but I manage it; my chin tips up, then falls again in a slight, single nod. Yes, Malaquin, this is how . . .

I want him to put something, anything, inside; his long elegant fingers, his tongue--I've heard from the servant girls' gossip that men and women can even use their mouths to give each other pleasure.

Strangely enough, as I watch her, she seems to nod an affirmation, and I almost stop right there with what I'm doing, a thrill of fear and dread stabbing through me. Is the drug wearing off? I hold my breath, but my sister remains motionless, and as my hand rests, not moving, in her wet heat, I get a sudden, forbidden urge.

I twist, groaning softly again as the shift in pressure brings my body's urgent complaints to me, and look at my hand and her inviting, feminine flesh. I must be possessed, to be thinking this, but suddenly, I want to taste her. I'm damned enough as it is, and I lean over her.

I slide my finger down, gently slipping it into her depths, feeling the heat and wetness of her. The scent is incredible, and I wonder if this is the way it is with every woman, or if it's just something about my sister. Then I lick at that protruding nub and the moisture around it, sliding my finger in and out of her, the queue of my hair falling to brush against her stomach.

Oh, no--he's stopping? No, don't stop, please, I'm so close, so close . . .

The feel of his fingertip pushing gently into me is utterly overwhelming; fortunately, he doesn't push it too far. The barrier of my maidenhead blocks that rather efficiently. The next sensation that comes to me through the dreamy haze is one that pushes me over the edge--it has to be his tongue, touching that pearl.

The climax is fast and powerful, my body quivering helplessly in bliss as the waves of ecstasy roll through me; the tiny muscles of my feminine passage clench tightly around his finger as my hips arch up of their own accord. It seems to go on forever . . .

When it ends, my body going slack again, sweat sheening me, I fall a little bit farther away into the dreamy haze. So good, Malaquin, so good!

The taste of her is as good as her scent, something one could easily get drunk on, and the thought goes through my mind that I don't like the idea of someone else enjoying her like this.

Her youthful strength is impressive as she bucks under me, and it's all I can do to keep from ending up accidentally biting my tongue. It's suddenly so much more wetter around my finger and I can taste a sweet tang. My own release--this must be what a woman does, caught in the grip of that unbridled, wild sensation that I feel when I hit my peak and spurt forth my seed--feels so close, and I almost cry out with the throbbing pain. Even so, I remain there, kneeling at her side, as she pants for breath, waiting for her condemnation. I can't see how she could continue being drugged after experiencing that.

Yet, she must be, because she just lies there, her body slowly falling back to its normal rhythm. Realizing that the grip of the drug must be a strong one, I stand up and unfasten the lacings of my tights, pulling them down enough to free my straining member. Blessed relief, that! But my body craves an ever sweeter release.

It doesn't last long, this drifting in the peaceful oblivion. Usually I do feel that wonderful lassitude after my body finds its release, but I always recover--and I feel less sleepy, suddenly. I wonder what Malaquin's doing now? He's not touching me any more . . .

I fall back with a groan to perch on top of the stone against which she had first been sitting. My emerald gaze remains focused on her, though I'm sure my eyes have a glazed look to them. My body craves relief from my pent-up passions, and it's something I'm more than willing to do since my sweet, still-innocent silver rose remains caught in the drug's narcotic effect.

My hand is slick with her wetness, but not slick enough; the sensitive skin of my manhood is still somewhat raw from the other night. I lift my hand to my mouth, the tangy scent of my sister clinging to the skin, and silently spit into my palm; it's the only thing I have handy at the moment. I then reach down and spread the liquid over my throbbing member, curling my fingers around myself as I start stroking myself in a slow up and down movement. It feels so good, I can't help but softly moan, the ache beginning to ease with the wet friction.

Slowly, the tingling numbness of my body fades; I can move, just a little, my fingers twitching against the moss. Why am I so weak, so tired?

The realization hits me suddenly. Something was in the . . . in the wine? Did Malaquin . . . do this? Plan this out? The idea is both supremely satisfying and utterly repellent; knowing that he might have wanted to plan carefully to be able to touch me and look at me is good, but the idea that he'd do such an underhanded thing isn't. Someone else must have put something in the wine, and Malaquin couldn't help himself when I fell asleep.

I can hear him moan softly. Is he touching himself? My head is already turned slightly to one side; I manage to force my eyes open a tiny bit to look. I can see him hazily, and there's a quick shock at the sight of him sitting on the stone, naked below the waist, caressing himself like that. My vision swims, blurring the details, and the thick veil of my lashes over my barely-open eyes makes it a bit more difficult yet to see him.

I close my eyes, the sight of my sister's exposed body still there in my mind's eye as I keep stroking myself. Heaven help me, but I find this far more pleasurable than I should, and guilt tears at me as much as ecstasy fills me with fiery sensations. The realization that my sister is a woman, a magnificent, sensual woman with all the wiles ascribed to her sex, hits me hard, with all the awareness a man has for such a desirable female.

I stroke myself faster, my heart pounding in me like a drum, my arm starting to ache. Wet, slippery sounds mingle with my soft moans and sharp gasps as my palm slides up and down the length of my manhood. I lift my head to the sky, back arching slightly, letting the stone bear more of my lean form's weight as my whole focus concentrates on the pleasure of the moment and the touch I give myself.

I manage to get my eyes open a little more so that I can see him. The sight of him doing that to himself--pleasuring himself just as I use my own hands to excite my body--is unbearably erotic; just as I had become a woman, my precious twin brother had become a man. I can't see all of his body, but that part which makes him a man is quite visible.

I slide my gaze up from his hand encircling his shaft to watch his face, enraptured. The look of bliss is familiar--whenever I caress myself in front of the mirror, which I've done a few times, I look much the same.

Oh, Malaquin. We're not children, but we're still so similar . . .

Men like to compare themselves, for we often equate what makes us physically a male with everything that makes us men, and I know from my own observations that nature gave me equipment just slightly bigger than I needed for my height. Needless to say, I'm sure I could please most any woman with it, when it comes to that.

I feel myself tense, on the edge, and my free hand comes down to cup the area in front of my throbbing staff. I shudder with the force of my orgasm, groaning as I buck against my own hold on myself, my hot semen coating my cupped hand with a few forceful spurts. I then squeeze myself dry and wipe off the tip of myself, gasping to catch my breath for a moment.

I'll need to wash my hands in the pond and rearrange both my clothing and that of my sister. But for now, I'm too drained to think of anything save lounging against the solidity of the boulder under me.

There's a hot blush on my cheekbones now--I can feel it. Watching him is such an incredible fantasy as he slides his hand rapidly up and down his proud shaft; when he groans, his hips jerking swiftly, I recognize a hint of my own cries of release in his voice.

So that's what it really looks like when a man reaches his peak. The pale fluid that holds the seeds of a new life glimmers in the reflected light off the surface of the pond, there in Malaquin's palm. He looks so pleasantly exhausted now, sitting on that rock.

I manage to move, though the effort requires me to shut my eyes again. One arm slides over the moss as I let out a sigh.

I swiftly come out of my reverie as I hear my sister stir. Heavens, no, I can't let her discover her current state--or my own. I slide from the rock and almost trot over to the clear, cool water of the pond, rinsing off my hand the evidence of what I've done. I then stand and shake my hand dry, stuffing my now-flaccid member into my tights and tying the drawstring. A quick tug here and there and my tunic is in perfect array again.

I return to Madule's side, kneeling down into the moss, my hands tugging on her clothing to return it to its proper place, though I remain very aware of her softness and heat there under my touch. I feel guilty and dirty both, but a part of me also likes what I've done and isn't sorry for it.

I raise my eyelids just enough to get a peek at him. He's washing his hands, then quickly pulling his clothing back into order; then he kneels beside me, hastily pulling my trousers up and refastening them. When he pulls at my undertunic and surcoat, I let my eyes open halfway, waiting for him to notice. Once he's done tucking my tunic and surcoat into place, he'll no doubt see the emerald eyes--the mirror of his own--looking up at him.

There, everything's back in place. I feel pretty good about getting things returned to some semblance of order, until I glance at her face to see if she's still sleeping and find her looking at me.

I stumble back, feeling all the blood drain from my face, suddenly frightened. How much does she know? How permanently have I shattered her trust in me? I want the earth to open up and swallow me now, my guilt and shame that intense, and I wonder again what madness could have possessed me to think of any of this--let alone act on it.

I just keep looking at him with a sort of curious calm on my face--no condemnation. From the look on his suddenly pale face, he's expecting condemnation, anger, tears of shame and horror.

I have to admit that I always did like surprising him.

I push myself up a little on one elbow, still feeling drained and weak; whatever was in that wine must have been pretty strong. My voice sounds soft, uncertain, as I look up at him. "Malaquin? . . ."

I find I can't face her. I look away, toward the pond, trying to get my breathing back under control. "Are you all rested now, Madule?" Perhaps if I just pretend nothing untoward happened . . .

"Oh, yes." I can't help the purr of satisfaction in my voice. It's hard to sit up the rest of the way--I'm still drowsy, my blood feeling thick in my veins--but I struggle to do so anyway, watching him. "And how do you feel, beloved brother? . . ."

"I'm fine. Here . . ." I slip the little vial of smelling salts from my pocket and twist open the cap. Getting back to a kneeling position and leaning forward, I waft the vial under my sister's nose, knowing the sharp, pungent scent of the salts will clear away the remaining effects of the drug. I know also that in helping her, I've probably truly given away just how much I planned this. "This should help," I murmur to her, watching to see when the stuff takes effect.

When it does, I recap the vial and slip it back into my pocket, waiting for what she'll say next.

The sharp odor makes me jerk my head a little, but it also blows away the fog like a crisp wind. Normally Malaquin wouldn't be carrying those, I know; the realization that he must have known about the stuff in the wine--or put it there himself--catches me between delight at the fact that he'd planned this out, and sadness at the idea that he thought he couldn't touch me or look at me that way without somehow making it so that I wouldn't know. He must not have known how much of the stuff was needed to really put me under.

I reach out and catch the wrist of the hand that just slid the vial of salts into his pocket; pulling his hand gently over toward me, I focus my gaze on his elegant fingers, his neat, clean nails. For some reason, it's difficult for me to meet his eyes, and my voice is almost a whisper. "Malaquin . . . you . . . Why, Malaquin?"

I make myself meet her emerald gaze, though it's so hard to do. Why, indeed? I ask myself, and I'm not sure what exactly it is she wants to know the reason behind. I then look at where her hand holds my wrist. My words are a faint whisper when I finally do speak. "Why what, Madule?"

"Why didn't you just ask me, if you wanted to see?" I lift his hand, press a kiss into his palm, then rest my cheek against his hand. "You're the only person in the whole world that I ever want to look at me and touch me. I trust you, brother, in ways that I could never trust anyone else."

The Church would say that I'm some kind of horrible sinner for saying such things. It's a good thing that I don't care what the Church says. Love is love, and it shouldn't matter who that love is felt for.

I look at her and I can't help but feel appalled and elated all at the same time. "It's not right," I weakly protest. "You're not supposed to want that, and I'm not supposed to want to touch you like that. You're my twin sister. It's just not natural." I'm not sure who I'm trying to convince, Madule or myself.

"If it's not 'natural', then why does it feel so natural, Malaquin?" I finally look up into his face. Goddess, he's so handsome, so perfect--my brother, my prince. "The Goddess's consort is her own son, remember? Only the Church says that it's wrong." I can't help the bitter tone in my voice as I speak the last words; I hate the Church, hate everything about it. "Brother . . . we've known each other all our lives, from the time we shared Mother's womb until this moment. Who else could ever understand us as well as we understand each other?"

"The Goddess's consort is her own son because she's the Mother of everything. You know that even among us that honor Goddess as well as God, brothers and sisters do not couple with one another." Heavens, this is hard, but one of us must try to conform to what's right and decent, though the more I look at her, the more I see how she looked caught in the throes of passion.

I stand up then, trying to get some distance. My silver rose, my sweet sister, your innocence needs to be protected, even if it means from yourself. "You know it can't be. You know we both must take someone in the sacred bonds of matrimony. You know it can't be any other way."

"But you and I are different, Malaquin! We're the royalty--the Goddess's own children. Would we feel this way, if She hadn't decided that it should be so?"

When he stands, I get to my feet as well, feeling a trace of panic starting to trickle through me as I look up into his face, desperately wanting him to understand. My own face whitens as he flings those words out into the calm air of the clearing. "No! I don't know that it can't be any other way! Malaquin, I don't want anyone else! I can't share my life with anyone who doesn't know me as well as you do. Please, Malaquin . . . don't look away from me . . ."

As always, her pleas make me cave in, and I do as she asks, looking at her, my dear, familiar twin. "I may be the sovereign prince of this land and wedded to Her in spirit, but I will not presume I know Her heart."

I offer her a smile, a sad little consolation gift, I know. "You can learn to like someone else, and they can learn to know you as well as I. I'm sure there's someone out there that catches your fancy now and then."

I see from her face that I need to try another tact. "Madule, you have to understand . . . The throne needs strong heirs to take it after I'm dead and gone, and there can only be strong ones, blessed ones, if your children's sire is from another bloodline. You know the wisdom in that; that's one piece of knowledge you can't dispute."

"You're my prince. Loving you was always the right thing . . ." I catch his hand, pull myself against him, putting my other arm around his ribs and burying my face in his chest. "There's nobody in the world that I even look at, Malaquin. Only you."

The calm, obvious logic of his words tears at me. It's true enough that a breeding within the bloodline produces weak offspring more often than not, but . . . "If it has to be just to produce heirs, I'll take another man--only as a . . . a stud, just for the child to be made. But I won't be anyone's bride but yours!"

Sadly enough, I just don't have the cruelty of heart to push her away from where she clings to me. For too many years, it's been the two of us against all the adults that wanted us to be their little royal puppets, and I can't make myself shove her away, even for her own good. I lower my head and stroke her hair, the softness and color of it just like my own; it's something I've done hundreds of times before.

"You can't be my bride. There's not a cleric in the world, not even the Mother's priestesses, that would sanction such a union. You know this as well. As for using another as a stud . . . Please . . . You need to find happiness in a destiny that's suitable.

"As for myself, I too am under obligations. I'll have to find a bride in time, but for now, I can know no one until the feis.

"I'm deeply sorry. I should never have given in to temptation like that. I don't know what possessed me to treat you so."

"We can make someone perform the ceremony--we're the royalty! I can't bear the thought of you marrying someone else, Malaquin . . . I can't! I won't let any other woman touch you! You're mine, and I'm yours--always!"

Tears streak my face, soaking into the front of his tunic. His words feel like knives, driving deep into my heart--the heart that beats with such pure love for him. "Don't be sorry, Malaquin--not for that! I . . . I wanted you to touch me . . . I think of you when I touch myself, only you!"

Her confession resounds in my mind, and I push her away in sudden horror and despair. My sweet, innocent silver rose . . . wanted me in a way she shouldn't. She had called my name that night! I stumble back, feeling my world come crashing down. No, no . . . Madule, Madule, how could you be as touched by darkness as I am?

I feel anger now, at having my idealism shattered. I can't bear to look at her, and I know my voice is harsher than it should be. "What kind of man do you take me for, sister mine?"

To feel his hands against me, pushing me away rather than pulling me to him, is like a nightmare made real. When he stumbles back from me as if I've suddenly turned into some ravening monster, all I can do is stand there, staring at him, the tears clouding my vision. Through the shimmering wet of my eyes, he seems to be haloed in light, my shining prince . . .

But his voice banishes the momentary fantasy. He's never spoken to me so harshly, sounding . . . disgusted. Disappointed--in me.

It's more than I can bear.

My hands come up to cover my face, feeling so ashamed, wounded to my very soul. My voice shakes helplessly, and I have to gasp to keep from sobbing. "M-Malaquin . . . you . . . please don't hate me! Please!"

"Heaven help me, I can't hate you." My jaw tenses, and I feel her shame and hurt as if they're my own; they echo what I feel in giving in to the internal demon that drove me to drug her and touch her in ways I know are forbidden. I'm sorry to hurt you so . . .

But the apology lodges in my throat, choking me.

I need to be harsh on her, at least right now. It's for her own good. Of the two of us, let me be the one tainted by wordly things; it's what's expected of me, as the reflection of the Horned One, to fight and kill and protect through strength. But you, my dear, dear sister . . . You are not the argent stag, but rather, the silver rose, the untouched, innocent flower . . .

I softly sigh. "Even royalty has to bow down to the laws of nature and man. I can't understand why you expect me to somehow think I'm above the dictates of the divine order of things."

Hope springs to life in me as he tells me that he doesn't hate me now. He'll see--he'll understand, and nothing will be able to separate us . . .

Just as it flowered so suddenly within me, hope withers with his next words, like a delicate bloom denied the life-giving light of the sun. He just doesn't want to understand, to recognize the bond between us.

Yet, even though the blossom of hope is stilled, caught in the shade, it does not die. I've already made my plans. I will make Malaquin acknowledge that we two are meant for each other . . . but not now. I can sense his guilt; such feelings will only make him deny the truth all the more.

I let my hands drop, bowing my head, forcing myself not to sob, even though the tears still fall. "I . . . I want to go home, Malaquin . . ."

"That's probably the best thing to do now." I look at her and see her wilted there, a fragile blossom pale and battered by the weather. My despair and guilt increase tenfold as I know I'm the one responsible for her silent tears. I never meant to hurt you, or make you cry . . .

Yet you dared touch her like that, and if she were as you expected, she'd be hurt and crying about that.

I softly growl at that condemning, mocking voice in my head, then cover the distance between us with a few swift, forceful strides. No, I don't hurt her--I can't conceive of deliberately harming her, my beloved sister--but I'm firm, not tender, with my embrace as I pick her up and walk with her over to where Sable's teathered.

She feels so light, so delicate, in my strong arms. It doesn't take much to lift her up to help her get on my stallion's saddle.

Malaquin's never touched me with anything less than tenderness; the unyielding feel of his arms around me now seems alien, totally unlike my dear twin. Still, I sense the strength in his arms as he lifts me, and I feel a wonderful thrill at the knowledge of his power.

I settle myself at the very front of the saddle; I won't let him put me on the back. I want him to feel my warmth and softness against his front--I want to rub his nose in the fact that I'm a woman, one that he'd just been touching intimately.

Goddess, she would insist on riding forward of me. It's just like her to further my torment because I don't agree with her. It's going to be a long ride back, what with her pressed against my front.

I vault up into the saddle--it takes a bit of doing, since Madule's already there--then reach around my twin's warm, feminine body to take the reins. Since she wants to be cruel, I decide to match her move. "Baron Rostelm is making quite the lucrative offer for you, my sister. I wish you'd consider it. He's young, strong, and comes from a very noble lineage."

I lean back against Malaquin's body, relaxing a little; even though we're quarreling, I still feel comforted by his nearness. I even hand him the reins, remaining quiet.

I don't stay quiet when he speaks, though, and I feel myself go rigid again. "No, Malaquin. His stupid falcon almost hurt Cinder, and besides that, he's crude, dirty, and ill-mannered."

Her scent lingers around me as I coax Sable into a smooth-gaited walk, and the image of her caught in passion fills my mind, making me suddenly warm all over again.

Then she stiffens against me, and I can't help but frown at her words. I've heard no complaints about the baron, personally . . . "Strange. He's always polite, chivalrous and well-mannered when I see him, and that's quite often." I don't think my sister would lie to me, but . . .

I elect to give him the silent treatment, resting my head back against his shoulder. Perhaps that's how the oaf behaves around other noblemen, but I've heard bad tales from more than one serving maid about the baron's behavior. Besides, as I've already indicated to Malaquin, I won't marry anybody because I don't want anybody but him.

I sigh at my twin's frosty silence, dropping the line of inquiry. I know I'm going to get nowhere.

It's still quiet by the time we make it out of Hartwood and into the fields surrounding the castle. I tug on the reins, and Sable obediently stops. Smiling, I look past my sister to our home.

Resting on an ancient mound long thought to be formed by the Goddess Herself to mark the very center of the kingdom, the sturdy curtain walls rise up toward the sky from the verdant hill. Hart Castle is an amalgam of centuries of habitation, its current incarnation one of the best, strongest and largest fortresses of Aleona, truly a fitting abode for the one that rules the land. The place has a feel of ancient magic to it, especially in the throne room itself.

At that moment, I feel proud of myself and my ancient bloodline. Even if I'm tainted by darkness and driven to do things sinful in the eyes of the divine and man alike.

I can't help but smile, seeing the proud fortress that's my home. And, once our eighteenth birthday has come, I'll be the chatelaine of that beautiful place.

I can sense Malaquin's pride and happiness, too, radiating against my mind as his body's warmth caresses my back.

I tap my heels against Sable, and he explodes into a smooth gallop. Holding the reins in one hand, I wrap my other around my sister's slender waist and hold her close as I lean forward slightly to ride with the gait of my destrier. In that moment, we're not shamed prince and princess, but rather once again the innocent children we had been, happy to be alive. I can feel Sable's hard, muscular body in smooth motion; I can feel my sister's warm, soft form against my own. Nothing else matters but that moment, full of life, energy and a joy in just being, able to feel the wind of our passing rippling our hair, the friction of our bodies as we ride the stallion, and hear the thunder of Sable's hooves on the green fields as we dash toward home and the future that awaits us.

I manage to catch hold of the saddlebow as Malaquin's stallion begins that fluid gallop; feeling my twin holding me back against himself, sensing his excitement added to my own, I let out a joyful laugh.

It's going to be all right, I'm sure of it.

Prelude silver rose bullet Chapter Two

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"The Silverlands", "The Obsidian Tower", "A Character's Chronicle: Zoey's Story", "Alpha Psi", "Argent Stag, Silver Rose" and the "Rose Realm" all © 1997 - 2002 by Dianna Silver. Some material also © 1998-2002 by Krissy Ryan. "Shoujo Kakumei Utena", also known as "Revolutionary Girl Utena" and "La Fillette Revolutionnaire" all © 1997-2002 by Chiho Saito/Shogakukan, Be-Papas, Shokaku Iinkai, TV Tokyo, and Central Park Media

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