Argent Stag, Silver Rose

Chapter Three: The Court

Once again, Cathal's fussing over me, but this time I don't mind it that much. I want to make quite the impression; I want to awe and dazzle those that will next see me. It's not every day that a prince becomes ruler in his own right. Especially after so long.

I look at myself in the mirror once Cathal's done, smiling slyly. I look downright stunning, a picture of regal elegance, if I do say so myself. My formal, court tunic is a deep emerald green brocade with a pattern of roses woven into it by midnight-black thread, the trim on it an elaborate metallic silver lace and accented by little glittering emeralds. The neckline, the sleeves that are both long and wide and the hem of the tunic is trimmed in the finest of sable furs, while my hose and tight-fitting undertunic are black. I wear ankle-high shoes of the same dark emerald color of my tunic so that the hose can show the entire length of my well-formed legs. A chain of white gold plaques rests over my shoulders and chest, the squares of metal adorned with emerald and obsidian. I have my hair loosely braided behind me, giving me the impression of my raven locks being loose but still neatly groomed.

"You're going to make quite the impression, Sire," the dusky-blonde servant murmurs to me.

"That's the entire idea, Cathal. I want them to know who's finally in charge around here." I smile at my reflection. This should be interesting.

I hope my sister likes the matching clothing I had made for her for this moment. Cut from the same cloth and made in the same fashion of trimming, her outfit and mine both cost me a fortune, but I thought it was worth it. I thought it was worth it over a month ago, when I first commissioned the work.

I wanted us to stand together, a united front.

I want that even more, now . . .

I'm no fool. I hadn't thought for a moment that I might blithely disappear for the whole day and night from the palace with no one the wiser; that was why I had planned most carefully. When Malaquin had departed his chambers, going down to the courtyard, I had staged a flawless performance of fear and anger, declaring passionately that I wouldn't stir from my chambers, nor eat a crumb, nor drink a drop, nor sleep a wink until I knew my twin was home safe. This theatrical arrangement was concluded with a violent slam of my chamber door, and the noisy locking thereof.

Then I'd gone out the window, of course.

I had to return the same way, which was a rather risky undertaking in the growing light of morning; predawn twilight had covered me before. It was my good fortune that nobody happened to look up when I was climbing the wall again.

Now, standing in the dressing room with three maids fussing over me, I critically survey myself. I know that Malaquin's wearing an outfit that complements my own clothing, but I hadn't liked the black thread; thanks to one of the seamstresses in the castle, the rose pattern of my skirts and bodice is embroidered in brilliant silver. The front of the overskirt is split to the waist, and the underskirt is made of layers of black tissuelike silk. Lace trims the edges and hems, glittering with every move; the tiny emeralds catch the light in bright green sparks. A long rope of pearls with a stunning emerald and white-gold pendant wraps my throat, the pendant resting against my cleavage; my earrings match the necklace, part of the inheritance from Mother.

My hair is elaborately arranged, the sides pulled high and back in an intricate coronet of braids woven with thin ribbons and tiny satin rosettes of green and silver; the rest of my hair falls loose down my back, curled with an iron bar heated near the fire--not enough to burn, but enough to make the raven locks spiral in a most pleasing way.

"You're beautiful!" gushes the youngest maid, almost dancing in delight. "Oh, mistress, they'll all fall to their knees at the sight of you!"

"That's the point," I answer dryly, turning toward the door.

"Come on, Sire. There's a couple other things you need to add to the look before you're completely ready," Cathal reminds me.

"Ah yes . . ." I know exactly what he's talking about. I nod, turning from the mirror.

With my manservant leading the way, I walk from my chambers down to the antechamber that lies just behind the throne room. Duke Agricol waits there, as do Earl Bors and two others of my former regents that I actually trust. Of the entire Council of Regents, only these four of the twelve truly had the best interests of Madule and I at heart. The others had used the opportunities to gain personal power--or gain power for the Church of the new religion that I mistrust so.

Agricol holds the Crown of State, a gorgeous, ancient masterpiece of the jeweller's craft, forged in white gold and adorned with emeralds, sapphires so dark they look black and glittering colorless sapphires, the crown has a theme of stag's horns and roses intertwined making up the body of the coronet. Bors holds the Sword of State, its white gold adorned black leather sheath and black leather belt dangling from his grasp. Earl Melias holds the Scepter, the sturdy rod of white gold topped by an orb adorned with stag's tines and decorated with delicately sculpted roses, and next to him, Duke Griflet holds a heavy cloak of emerald green and black, the arms of the kingdom embroidered in metallic silver thread on the back and the inside and edges lined with sable fur. When they get done putting all that on me, I will certainly look every inch the sovereign prince of Aleona.

Fortunately, my gown's train isn't long enough to require assistance; it's just enough to be dramatic, but not enough to be a pain. My personal maid accompanies me through the corridors and down the stairs toward the antechamber; I wait patiently outside the door as she steps in shyly to ask if there are any particular things that the princess should do for this occasion. I know that she's also covertly looking around, probably with terrible anxiety; my own coronet wasn't where it should have been, nestled in its velvet-lined case in my bedroom. Neither I nor the maids felt really inclined to raise the alarm it; no need in getting everyone whispering about bad omens.

I hear my sister's maid, and I smile as I turn to face her. "Ignore the gentle lords," I tell her as I hold out my arms, letting Griflet settle the cloak on my broad shoulders. "Yes, actually. I need for my sister the princess to be seated in her usual place on the dais at the start of Court." Her usual place is in her personal, folding chair on the left side of me next to the Stag Throne. Because the Rose Throne is reserved for the prince's wife, she couldn't sit there--but she created enough of a fuss in our younger days that she was finally allowed to sit next to me on the other side those times I was in attendance in Court and nominally overseeing what the regents were doing.

I can't help but smile. This one was going to be a different Court . . . Patience, Malaquin. You need subtlety now. Time to put to use what you've learned, I silently tell myself as I take the scepter in hand, the sword already belted at my waist before the cloak was settled on my shoulders.

I smile at the sounds of Malaquin's voice, but I know that my maid is twisting her skirt between her hands, nervous and worried. Her voice sounds a bit ragged. "As you wish, Your Highness. Ah . . . there . . . there's a small problem, Your Highness, Your Lordships . . ."

I look over the very nervous maid and I can't help but wonder if I somehow look too intimidating. I feel much the same as always, though there's a low murmur of excitement running through me. "And what problem is that?" I ask her gently, Duke Agricol reaching up to settle the Crown of State on my raven-haired head.

I inwardly smile, thinking I know what she's going to say. And she's correct; it is a problem of protocol.

But it's not really a problem. Still, I wait to hear what she says.

"Y-your Highness . . . the coronet that belongs to Her Highness has--has gone missing." I hear the maid gasp with the last words, as though she's managed to get them out and can finally breathe. She rushes on, "No one knows what happened to it, or even when it disappeared . . ."

I frown to myself at the reminder of the missing coronet. I'd kept it so carefully in its rosewood case lined with black velvet--a breathtaking circlet of white gold wrought in the form of a delicate, lacy garland of roses, each petal set with twinkling emeralds, deepest blue sapphires, and pale glimmering gems. I'd been round-eyed and flushed with excitement when I first laid eyes on the lovely thing; it's mine, and I don't like the thought of someone walking off with it.

I nod, then turn to look at Griflet.

He's twice my age, and was one of my mother's friends within the nobility as well as a friend of my uncle. With wavy, dark auburn hair and dark brown eyes, he seems to get quite his share of panting lasses after him, though I know he's happily married. Griflet grins and walks over to the sturdy table, picking up a familiar, rosewood box. "It's safe and sound right here, Your Highness, just as you requested."

"Good." I turn my attention back to the maid. "Tell your mistress that it's in my keeping at the moment, but she shall have it returned anon. I promise. She should also take her place on the dais now, if it pleases Her Highness."

I feel like slamming the door open and yelling at Malaquin until I get a headache--I'd been so worried about that circlet, and he just took it without asking!--but I remain quiet. The maid gives a nervous curtsey as she scurries backward out the door; I'm already going back down the hall to the door that opens out to the throne room. I'll scream at Malaquin later, unless he apologizes first.

I walk up the steps of the dais almost sedately to take my seat, then wait as my maid does some last-minute fussing.

"She's going to yell at you, you know," Agricol reminds me as the maid retreats.

"Perhaps. We'll see what she says after Court." I give the duke an almost wicked grin. "If she's still angry at me, I'll gladly let her scream at me."

Bors is peeking through a spyhole in the antechamber wall. "Looks like everyone's there, Your Highness."

"Then it should be time to make my entrance and dazzle the public," I respond.

"You're going to make a lot of people angry, Your Highness," Agricol adds. "Especially Duke Balan. Duchess Igraine has gotten very used to being Hart Castle's chatelaine."

"I know, and she's done a respectable enough job, but they are both agitators for the Church, and I'm uncomfortable at that." I frown at a memory, of the pious duchess insisting that my sister and I should give up believing such nonsense as us being able to hear one another when neither one speaks and that I should make sure that Madule learns her proper place or she'll certainly be damned. "I'm ruler now, and I shall rule this land as I see is in its best interests," I insist, my voice taking on a harsh edge.

I'm pleased by the way everybody's staring at me right now. As I'd told the maids, that was the main reason for my elaborate preparations. Now, I only want one more person to see me looking this lovely.

I reach out mentally to touch Malaquin, letting him feel my slight impatience and the shy, eager desire to have him look at me in this gorgeous gown.

I feel the brush of my twin's mind, and it makes me smile. I'm anxious too, to see what she thinks of me and how I look--and what she'll think of what I'm about to do. I give her a bit of reassurance in return, then start walking to the door off to the side.

The door opens up into a small corridor where a herald awaits. I nod to the man wearing the tabard of the kingdom's arms, a signal that I'm ready.

The tall, thin herald opens the door and steps into the large room beyond. I hear his voice booming through the marble-adorned chamber. "All rise and make way for His Royal Highness Malaquin, by the grace of the divine sovereign prince of Aleona!"

I hear the shuffle of chairs in response to the call, and take a deep breath. Then, with a long, graceful stride, I sweep through the doorway and walk along the length of the dais to stand before the thrones and face the crowd. The four noblemen with me trail after me, taking up positions to either side as my honor guard. I can see the sour faces of the other eight former regents that were not invited to attend me up on the dais with my sister. They know exactly what this means.

I don't need them anymore.

I take a moment and look out over the standing crowd of nobles that fill up the throne room to either side of a central walkway demarked by a plush carpet in silver, black and green, well aware of my sister behind me and to my left.

I'm already standing, having sensed Malaquin's readiness; my hands are clasped demurely at my waist as I begin to turn even before the herald opens the door.

I never get announced like that. It drives me crazy.

I watch Malaquin enter, unable to keep the look of awed admiration from my face--I just hope that he gets the same expression when he looks at me.

"My lords and ladies," I begin, my emerald gaze sweeping over them. "As you see, We have successfully celebrated the feis that was to have happened upon the dawning of Our eighteenth year and We have been accepted by the powers of the divine as the true ruler of this realm. At this time, it is Our wish to lay the foundation from which We are to rule for the good of all.

"The first act We hereby take as sovereign Prince is the dissolution of the Council of Regents. You have all done honorably and nobly to see to the raising of Ourselves and Our sister, but that time has now passed. We thank you, one and all, for your service to Us and our fair realm."

I know that's going to cause some waves, but not as much as my next announcement shall. I can't help but wickedly smile--just a little--as I take the breath I need for the next proclamation.

"Our second act is the establishment of Our Council of Advisors. This group of nobles are hereby assigned to aid Us in giving advice in matters of import to the realm and Ourselves. At this time, We call to this duty Agricol, Duke of Roeshaven, Bors, Earl of the Southports, Melias, Earl of Hartford and Griflet, Duke of Clearwater. In the future, We may add to this Council, but at the moment, these four have been found worthy to help Us with the decisions that must be made."

I can hear the murmurs and gasps of the crowd. None of the ones I've favored are those who follow the new religion, and they can all see that. Of the ones of my former regents, these four alone were not of the Church.

I know I've made myself a target, but I care not. I will not permit this intolerant religion to gain more of a hold than it already has.

I rather like it when Malaquin speaks in the royal plural. It makes me feel like he's speaking for me, too--not just for the entire realm as its prince.

I've come up to stand just behind his left shoulder now. We must make a stunningly beautiful pair--twin prince and princess in our royal colors, blue-black hair glimmering in the light, looking like two sides of the same coin in our similar features, made different only by his masculinity and my femininity.

I have some trouble keeping from smirking when Malaquin names off his new advisors. I've always been rather fond of those four, particularly Agricol, a dear old man who always managed to sneak sweets to me.

At the mutters and exclamations of the crowd, I reach up to gently put a hand on Malaquin's shoulder. I don't want him to turn to look at me just yet, but I want to make it very clear that I--Royal Princess and daughter of the Goddess--support him wholeheartedly.

I feel my twin's approval--and supreme satisfaction--at my announcements so far, and I inwardly smile, sensing she feels the same about the royal plural that I do, that it's more of a reflection of she and I both speaking our wills for the good of our people.

And that brings to my mind the highlight of this moment. But I want to savor it, just a little . . .

I gesture to the audience as I say my next words. "You have Our permission to be seated and make yourselves comfortable." As they start to take their seats, I flare out the cloak that hangs elegantly along my tall form and sit upon the Stag Throne.

It fits me so well now, this ornate, comfortably padded oaken chair gilded in white gold and intricately carved with scenes of leaping stags and twining roses. I recall just how huge it had been when I had first had to sit in this spot, my legs dangling in the air because the chair was too high for me to set my feet on the dais floor. As always, I can sense the tingle of latent power surrounding me; both this throne and the Rose Throne have centuries of tradition and ceremony stored within them, making them repositories of the magic of sovereignty. I still am awed at the sleeping power inherent in the thrones.

I take a smooth step back in sync with Malaquin, and sit down with a faint sigh in the plainer chair that I've had to use. It's still very nice, carved of fine oak and padded with white velvet, but I can't help but cast a covetous eye at the lovely Rose Throne, the princess's seat, last occupied by our aunt. I can feel the tingling warmth from that throne and my brother's royal seat, and I wish fiercely that I could share in that mantle of age-old power and nobility.

I catch a fleeting sense of my sister's envy, and it takes nearly everything I have to remain blank, emotionless, to our bond. "As We stated before, We are laying the foundation for Our rule at this moment. Nobles of Aleona, pray attend and heed Our words well, for We are loath to have to repeat ourselves."

As I sit there, I enumerate all the changes I want to go into effect as of right that moment. Many of the nobles that follow the Church are stripped of the offices that I think are too sensitive or too important for them to hold, such as the many sheriff's positions throughout the land that safeguard the royal forests, and I name nobles that I know are strong adherents to the proper ways into these commissions. The wardships of heiresses and heirs that the regents--over the objections of my loyal four--awarded to the Church I revoke, forcing them all to revert back to the Crown. I'll have people I trust interview the mothers and heiresses and see what good matches I can make for them--or what deals I can come up with that will be in everyone's best interests. The once-royal lands gifted to the Church by the regents I now turn around and give as fiefs to those loyal nobles--especially knights that have not yet been landed--that have done well in service to the Crown.

It's all well-planned and well-thought out, and each appointment and gifting takes just that much more wealth and power from the Church that the regents gave to them.

Divine justice, I like to think, smiling to myself as I watch the Church fanatics and bishops scowl more with each blow I deal out.

I put a hand lightly on the arm of the Stag Throne, just touching Malaquin's elbow. It's something that I've done before--ever since he first sat in that throne when we were children. My way of reminding him that I was with him, and that he didn't have to be afraid.

I like the way he said that, indicating that if he does have to repeat himself, somebody's going to regret it. I like it even more as his words drop into the cool air of the throne room, setting off a rash of pale faces and shocked gasps and murmurs as Malaquin systematically whittles the Church's hold on the land's rulership down to virtually nothing. On and on he goes, his calm, measured voice shattering the years of work by the Church-following regents in mere minutes.

I'm so proud of him that I think I might burst. I'm recognizing a number of my own suggestions in his proclamations, and that makes me all the happier; I'd been the one to first object to the regents handing over those children--and their wealth--to the damnable Church, and I'd argued it furiously with Malaquin. Not that he'd been much of a debate opponent, because after less than five minutes, he understood exactly what made me so upset about it.

That conversation had been back when we were about fifteen. I'm glad he remembered.

I'm a serious threat to them. I can see it in their eyes, especially those that had been my regents. What I wouldn't give to know what they had been promised by the Church for all these privileges, lands and wardships that let them rake in more and more money with each passing year.

But they misjudged me. They thought they could take a little boy and indoctrinate him into their world and their beliefs. They almost succeeded, only my sister, my beloved, was always there to point out to me how imbalanced their view was and how badly it degraded feminine kind. I admit, their preaching of man being given a divine mandate to rule over everything, including woman, has a dark allure to it--but I would not be a proper ruler, a proper consort of the land, if I turned my back on the Mother and all she stands for.

But I continued to play along, to pretend to be their compliant little prince . . . and planned for this day to throw all their expectations right back into their faces.

I wait for the outraged murmurs from those of the new religion--those of the true faith are all beaming, seeing at last a proper leader upon the Stag Throne--to die down before I start the final scene of this first court of mine.

I slowly stand, the cloak falling gracefully around me as I look for one lady in particular. "Duchess Igraine, please kneel before Us."

Igraine, the chatelaine, the one that was responsible for the household and supplies of Hart Castle--and wife of the one man that profited the most from the growing power of the Church. I've long thought she was doing an adequate job of overseeing the servants and storerooms, but my sister has had some suspicion that Igraine hasn't been what she seemed on the surface. We shall see in due time . . .

They could have turned Malaquin into the pawn they wanted him to be, kowtowing to the Church . . . but I wouldn't allow it. I could never lose sight of the fact that he and I are the children of the Goddess; they'd tried to force me into their mold as well, to shape me into a submissive, meek female fit only to warm a man's bed, oversee his house, and bear him children. That had been the reason why they'd tried to forbid me to become a priestess of the Goddess--but it was also the reason why I strove so hard to become exactly that.

I protected my brother's mind from them, and in turn, he protected my body, flatly refusing to let them marry me off. They'd have sold me like chattel as early as possible, but for Malaquin.

I blink, then watch curiously as my twin rises, calling Igraine forward. I can't help but shoot the older woman a brief, brittle glower; I had serious problems with the way she had been handling certain aspects of her office. For one thing, I really didn't like the way she threatened and punished the servants who formed romantic attachments with other servants; the duchess was so straitlaced that it was amazing she could even move, and her "piety" made me sick. Just a few days ago, I'd had to listen to her preaching about sin and damnation to a sixteen-year-old servant girl who'd blushed at a youthful footman's roguish wink.

Plump and rather matronly, Igraine had once been quite the beautiful woman. I recall a long-ago crush on her on my part when she had first arrived here to be with her husband, but that had faded in time. She was always sweet and charming when I was around, the perfect picture of a proper noblewoman. Even now, she still has some of her faded beauty in her rounded body, light brown hair and deep brown, doelike eyes.

She walks up, escorted on the arm of her husband, the very large, rather well-fed Duke Balan, the former leader of the Council of Regents. If the man has been out on the training field of late, I would be stunned. After Balan stops a respectful distance away, Igraine takes the last couple of steps and kneels down at the foot of the three-stepped dais, the large ring of keys jangling from her belt.

I walk toward her, then stop, looking down at her. I haven't yet looked at my sister, too involved in keeping eye contact with my captive audience, but I can feel now and again her emotional reactions to what I've done so far. This action, however, probably means the most to me. "Your Grace, for years you have served Us in the capacity of chatelaine, seeing to the running of Our household and to the fullness of Our storerooms. You have also seen to the training of Her Royal Highness Our sister so that she may also be an efficient chatelaine.

"We thank you for your service, and We now release you from those duties into the care of your husband."

She looks shocked. Even after all the other strippings of power and gifting of resources from Church to nobles I trust, she appears to not believe that I would dismiss her from her post she's had for so long.

I hold out my hand, a gesture of command I don't expect to be ignored. "Your Grace, the keys to Our household, please."

She almost looks like she's going to argue with me, but then she fumbles with her girdle to untie it and remove the heavy ring from her person. Behind her, I can see her husband glaring daggers at me. He's insulted--and I'm glad.

True, the duchess has impeccable manners . . . almost too impeccable in these later years. I never liked the way she showed such disapproval of my "hoydenish ways" and kept trying to tell me that I should always be soft-spoken, meek, and obedient, since it was "proper" and men found such qualities more desirable in potential brides.

Of course, that always made me act up twice as badly.

Certainly I'd received ample training in how to be a chatelaine. I learned quite a bit about what not to do, as well. Malaquin's words startle me, and I sit a little straighter in my chair, surprised.

The heavy key-ring clinks softly as the duchess unties it from her girdle. I glower at the duke; I never liked him very much. Fat, pompous idiot.

I take the keys from her, feeling their weight in my hand. Like the crown I wear, they have a heavy responsibility. A chatelaine can mean the difference between healthy, well-fed, well-clothed people and people who are cold, hungry and ill. A chatelaine has to know a household inside and out and be prepared to step in and run everything if the lord is out attending to duty elsewhere.

There's only one person I trust to see to it that I have a home to return to with a well-taken-care-of staff.

I dismiss the ducal couple with an imperious gesture of my free hand. Igraine still looks stunned, betrayed, and Balan looks like he's certainly going to be a source of trouble in the future. I wouldn't doubt to see him siding with the Church to try to rein me in.

Let them try. I have the weight of tradition, royalty and sovereignty on my side, and a woman every bit as formidable as myself there as well.

I know I will win in the end, that Madule and I will win.

A tender smile settles on my face as I stroke the ring of keys in my hand. "Your Royal Highness, if you would please kneel before Us?"

The question's already burning through the throneroom--if Igraine has been dismissed, who will Malaquin name as the new chatelaine?

I hear myself gasp--along with everyone else--at Malaquin's next words. Shaking off my astonishment, I rise from my chair, then circle around to kneel before my brother--not all the way down on the floor, but on the second step of the dais. I want to see the look on his face when he takes in the sight of me in the beautiful gown.

I hear her faint steps and the whisper of her gown as she rises and starts to circle around me. But I'm ill prepared to gaze upon the vision of stunning beauty that appears before me. I must look like an idiot, struck dumb in appreciative awe at the divinely beautiful woman that is my sister.

I've never see anyone more beautiful. Her hair is perfect, an intricate style that accents her face and neck and just begs for my fingers to run through it and take it down. Her womanly curves are shown to advantage by the deep emerald cloth, though I'm startled by the silver stitching. Even so, it looks perfect on her, the way it shimmers with her movements, like mist from the waters of a lake. I just want to stare at her; I want to drag her to a private place and ravish her.

It's a good thing my tunic is rather able to camouflage my reaction.

I swallow hard, my throat suddenly dry, and it takes a moment for me to regain my composure to continue.

I'm as graceful as a swan as I kneel before my beloved twin, my skirts pooling around me. Malaquin's clothing conceals his physical reaction to me, but I can feel his sudden arousal, and I smile dazzlingly up at him. I'd wanted to impress him, to make him see all over again that I'm a beautiful--very beautiful--woman. Just in case he'd forgotten somehow.

"You are almost too enchanting for your own good," I softly whisper to my twin before lifting my voice for the continuation of my appointment. "Through all the years, Our lady sister has been there for Us, seeing to Our needs and Our comfort. Henceforth, Princess Madule shall be Our chatelaine and take over the day to day operations of Our household. My lady sister, is this an office you accept from Our hands?"

I smile down at her, my emerald eyes full of the love I have for her as well as reflecting the rather insistent desire her lovely visage has given me.

I feel so happy that I can barely speak, but I manage, nodding gracefully as I raise my hands. "Gladly will I accept this trust, my brother, and I swear to fulfill the duties of your chatelaine. I will keep you and all those who dwell within Hart Castle in comfort; I will preserve for you a true home to return to when you must go out among our people."

I feel so happy I could burst as I hand the heavy ring of keys to her, there before Goddess, God and everyone. "Then take from Us the keys of your new office, that you may have full access to this, Our home and household, and know that you hold the very trust and respect from Ourselves to carry out these duties to the best of your ability." I then drop my voice so that only Madule can hear me. "Stay there a moment longer, beloved, but secure the keys to your person. I have something more in mind."

I then look to Agricol and nod, my signal for him to approach with the rosewood box that holds my sister's royal coronet.

With a slight smile, the old duke walks up to us, the box held securely in his hands. He appears almost vindictively joyful, being the most vocal opponent to the encroachment of the Church during the regency.

I nod minutely just to show him that I understand, then busy myself with the keys. Fortunately, there's a slim girdle encircling my waist, and it's only the work of a moment or two to tie the heavy ring to the sash, feeling the cool weight against my side.

Glancing up, I blink at the sight of the rosewood box. What is my twin plotting now?

I can't help but smirk at my sister's look of suspicion as I open the box and reverently pick up the gorgeous coronet from the velvet-lined confines. Holding it in my hands above where my twin kneels before me, I let my gaze sweep over the throne room. Everyone's watching me, wondering what I'm going to do.

"As you all know, We have yet to take a bride in holy matrimony. However, the realm needs someone to stand in for Us those times We are unavailable or incapacitated. As of this moment, that person shall be Our beloved twin sister. Until such time as We take a bride, she shall be at Our side as Our representative, taking her rightful place as such on the Rose Throne."

That gets gasps from more than just those that follow the Church, but it's for different reasons. They understand that I have just reclaimed the feminine half of Sovereignty, as I should. For the Church, to make my sister essentially co-ruler is unheard of. A woman ruling?

"She shall be treated as We are, her royal blood acknowledged by one and all. She shall have a seat upon Our Council of Advisors and be Our representative when We cannot be there.

"We are the consort of the land, and she is the land personified. Thus it is Our command that this burden of ruling shall be shared by her."

I look down at my sister, my love. "Do you accept Our command, beloved twin?"

My eyes widen as Malaquin lifts out the delicate rose-wreath of white gold and jewels, holding it above me. I'm reminded suddenly of the coronation, five years ago--how I had held the heavy crown, lowering it onto my brother's brow.

My heart almost leaps out of my chest at his words. I will sit on the Rose Throne? I will rule at his side, as his equal in the eyes of the people?

Tears cloud my vision--tears of awe and joy. For him to give me this gift is beyond anything I had ever dared imagine; even my dreams of being his lover had never touched on something this profound. Somehow, I manage to articulate beyond a simple cry of "Yes!"; this is a solemn occasion, after all, and I should rise to meet it.

"It would be the greatest joy of my life to accept the duty that you honor me with, dearest brother . . ."

I wait for her answer, feeling her overwhelming joy, and it makes me feel so good to give her a gift this precious. It's the best I can do, knowing that I can never give her a proper wedding or proper relationship. Then again, what we shared last night was probably as profound a marriage as we could ever have, either one of us.

Slowly, I lower the sparkling crown onto her head, trying to not muss up her intricate styling too much, though my hands certainly enjoy the excuse to feel the silken softness of her raven locks. "Then take this crown as the symbol of the weight and responsibility of your duties and your joyful service in behalf of Our people. This burden shall rest upon your shoulders until such time as We take unto Us a wife, so bear it honorably and well."

My hands leave the crown, giving Madule the full weight of the coronet. I then hold them out to her, an offer to help her to her feet. "Then arise, Princess Madule, Our partner in the governing of this, Our land, until the time comes for the duty to fall to another." We both know I probably will never take a wife to replace her in this role. "And take your seat at Our side in the Rose Throne."

The throne room is almost dead silent. I knew I was going to shock a number of people with this.

But it was only right.

I sense what he's thinking. The ritual last night was more than just an ordinary wedding; it was a binding deeper and more true than anything a more conventional courtship might offer. In a very real sense, I am his bride, and he my bridegroom.

And now I'm his crowned princess, besides.

I take his hands, rising gracefully, looking up into his face. I can read his thoughts there as well--the knowledge that we share, that there will never be another to take this coronet and the Rose Throne from me. Happiness beats in my veins, driven by every rapid pulse of my heart.

He turns with me, escorting me with true gentlemanly elegance to the beautiful throne that stands beside his own seat. As I sink down onto its cushions, it feels . . . so right . . .

Her joy is a glorious thing to witness and to sense, and the guilt I hold within me for my illicit desire of her fades away. How could something that gives us both such happiness--one of the few things that has ever given us such joy or pleasure--be a sin that will damn us both to eternal torment? I know I've served the Goddess well; She would never just decide to arbitrarily punish me or my twin for being good.

As I sit next to her in the Stag Throne, I lift her hand to my lips for a kiss. To everyone else, it's a gesture of courtly affection--I've done this very same thing hundreds of times, as have others of the nobility--but to me, it's the only gesture of passionate desire I can give her before everyone's watchful eyes.

But I'm sure it's enough.

For you, Madule, my beloved. I did this because I love you.

I smirk still at the expressions on the faces of some of the nobles as they see my twin sitting in the throne reserved for the prince's consort.

The Mother understands; I learned that in the cave, lying there wrapped in Her presence and loving warmth. If we had grown up with our parents still there, perhaps we would have gone a different path, since we wouldn't have had only each other. But since fate had given us to one another, we surely could not be condemned for following its dictates, for letting the relationship that had long been sibling adoration and profound friendship evolve into a lovers' bond.

His lips touch my knuckles, and my longing shiver is only perceptible to him; the gesture is simple and common enough, but I feel the heat of his lips, see the fire in his eyes.

Oh, Malaquin . . . I would only do this for you, be the chatelaine of your house, because I love you so . . .

I know the nobles are watching--some in outright horror and shock--but I really don't care much.

Our hands stay linked--I'm loathe to let her go, since I can get away with the touch even in public; we've always been rather affectionate with one another even before now--mine holding hers as our arms sit upon the armrests of the thrones. Looking at my sister--Goddess, she's so beautiful--I softly murmur to her, "Do you wish to stand up and address our subjects, beloved? Say anything here and now about how the household is to be run?"

I just smile at him and murmur in return, "You're so good to me . . ."

Then I look out over the throne room, my face settling into a stern, calm mask. "In these past years, it has been noticed that certain aspects of the household's operation have been . . . less than satisfactory to many. While Duchess Igraine has done an admirable job, it is past time that she be allowed to retire to her own estates to spend her time with her children and family. There will be changes here, my lords and ladies, and I intend that all such changes be for the greater good."

I lean back against the padding of the throne, listening to my twin step into the role fate and I have given her. She's more than up to the task, I'm sure, just as I am. Two sides of the same coin, that's what we are, bound by destiny to be there for one another and to help one another with anything and everything.

How I love her so. I couldn't think of a better person to be both chatelaine and help-meet. To even consider anyone else leaves me cold inside.

I turn my head to smile brightly at Malaquin, lacing my fingers with his. I share his feelings, that together, we can conquer any foe, meet and overcome any challenge.

"I've said my piece, brother. Will you add anything?" I ask him softly, glancing down at our joined hands.

I lift our hands again to my lips to kiss her hand again. Still holding them up, I give the nobles one last stare. "Remember what you have seen today. My twin is to be considered Our equal in all matters, and to be respected as such. To not treat her in such a manner will visit Our full wrath upon you."

I take a moment to smile sweetly at my beloved, then nod to the gathered nobles. "You are dismissed to do as you please. This court is adjourned."

I however plan to sit here and let Madule enjoy her posh seat.

One stunned nobleman finally manages to articulate. "Your Highness! Surely you cannot be serious!"

I'm certainly enjoying the nice new chair, and the nobleman's strangled voice irritates me. I turn my head to glare.

"Excuse Us? Was there something We said that wasn't made absolutely clear?" I turn my gaze to look at the outspoken noble, a youngish knight from first appearances. Probably some hoping for some reward from the regency only to have it snatched away because I took control.

"We are deathly serious, Sir. Everything We have proclaimed this day shall be."

The man swallows a bit visibly, then lifts his chin in clear resolution. "'Tis not natural to name a woman as a co-ruler, Your Highness! Perhaps 'twas the way long ago, but that was in the past. Surely God will frown upon this state, and His displeasure will affect us all."

I feel like throwing something at the young man, but that urge gets even stronger as he takes a stride forward, virtually shedding self-righteous nobility all over the floor. "Your Highness, I wish to offer for the hand of your royal sister, whose face is fair and whose nature is sweet, surely unsuited to the hard tasks of rulership."

I can't help but blink at the audacity of the man. Most nobles have enough brains to at least recognize me as the ruler in name if not in fact. Quelling my sudden and violent urge to leap off the throne and belt the man for daring to want to save what's mine from myself, I smile far too sweetly at the young noble.

"Do you now? And you are?" I'm amazed I can keep my voice from sounding offended as my cool gaze looks the man over from head to toe.

"Baron Artos, your Highness." He bows, managing to do it without tripping over the rapier belted at his side. "Of the fief of Redhill."

I swear under my breath, using a word that I'd heard in the stables from a groom that hadn't known I was around at the time. This is the young idiot who's been writing me stupid flowery bad poetry for the last three months. I'd love to stuff every one of his ridiculous poems down his throat right now.

I can tell my sister's made the young baron's acquaintance, much to her disgust, it seems. I have to smile slightly at her reaction. "Well met, Baron Artos. Now, are you really walking up to Us to tell Us that you can do a better job of taking care of Our sister than We can?" I make the tone of my voice imply everything I'm thinking: you're an idiot, baron, if you think you can take care of my beloved Madule than I can.

And you're a bigger idiot if you think she wants to be a meek, gentle creature that doesn't have any say in how things are run.

Artos looks nervous--rightly so--but he keeps his fool head up. He's reasonably handsome, but he looks like he doesn't do much actual thinking. "Your Highness, as blessed as the sibling affection between you and Her Highness may be, surely you must see that you will only harm her by laying this heavy burden on her?"

I'd like to laugh in his face, but I'm too outraged to do it.

Divide him up the middle with the Sword of State, Malaquin. It'd make me delirious with joy.

"And, pray tell, what light burdens would you give Our sister instead of the heavy ones We offer?" I steeple my fingers together, lightly tapping my fingertips against my lips. I want to see how much rope Artos is going to give himself before he hangs himself.

The young dunce looks like he expects a holy aura to shine around him as a reflection of his nobility as he answers in all honest confidence. "I would give her the overseeing of Redhill, a fief that is not so large nor complex as Your Highness's holdings, and which is in need of a woman's touch. Never would she have to make any decisions that affect aught but the household; she could be content there as my bride and the mother of my children, and I would even undertake to educate her in the ways of the One True God that she may find eternal salvation."

I'm having trouble keeping the laughter in by now. The worst part is that this fellow actually seems to believe the tripe he's spouting.

"We see . . ." I know of a number of regents that would agree with this handsome but seemingly vacant-headed noble. "You know that Our sister and Ourselves have within us the blood of the Divine Mother. What do you say to that?" This answer ought to be interesting, considering they don't exactly believe in Goddess or divine descent, though we who believe know better. Otherwise, why would I feel the phantom weight of the antlers of the Horned One even now as I sit here on the Stag Throne and listen to a youth of my land spouting this nonsense?

The fool actually smiles in a way that's obviously patronizing. I wonder if he knows how close he is to having his head part ways with his neck. "It is a fascinating superstition, your Highness, with a rich body of legendry surrounding it, but surely such a claim cannot be believed or proven. Obviously, your ancestors were simply of such caliber of nobility and purity of blood that they seemed like deities to the common folk, and these tales of 'divine birth' sprang up as a way for the commoners to justify their subordinate positions to the nobility."

I give Malaquin a look. If he won't silence this oaf, I will. In fact, by now, I'm quite ready and willing to shut him up.

I'm already rising out of my throne before Madule can even look in my direction. His words of it being a fascinating superstition galvanize me into action. I take a couple of swift steps forward, then poke the baron hard in the chest, almost shoving him over in my rage. "Let Us get something straight right here and now. We are the prince, consort to the land, and We know what is in the best interests of Our subjects, including Our twin sister. We think Our sister can easily handle the duties given her and if We hear one more word out of you about how much more you know than We do what is right, We will take that fief from you for breaking your vow of loyalty to Our lawful commands and give it to someone who knows their proper place!" By the time I'm done with my paragraph, my voice is nearly ringing through the large chamber, my fury easy for everyone to see.

Artos very nearly topples over. Malaquin's quite a bit taller and stronger, after all. I sigh softly in contentment as my brother socially overpowers the doltish baron who so flippantly tried to dismiss the sacred lore of the Goddess as mere "superstition".

The threat of having his fief taken away from him certainly makes Artos turn pale, blinking as he steps hastily back from my angry twin. Now I rise, coming down the steps of the dais to lay a hand gently on Malaquin's forearm. Time to play the role that I seem made for; time to show everyone, without exception, that I may just be the only thing that can possibly exert any power over the sovereign prince of Aleona.

"Peace, now, dearest brother," I murmur--a murmur that manages to be heard all over the throne room. "Calm yourself. I am certain that his lordship did not intend to show insult or disloyalty to you."

I turn my placid face toward the baron, who's smiling at me brightly, hopefully, and rather vapidly. That smile dissolves off his face as I continue to speak in the same soothing, sweet tone. "Besides, I would sooner give myself in marriage to a wild stag than consider a wedding to his lordship." The subtext is probably noticeable only to Malaquin--I do mean that I'd definitely marry him, the Argent Stag, before I'd even consider any other man. "It would not be proper for me to marry someone who shows such flagrant disrespect for the Divine Mother. After all, I am her priestess . . ."

That causes a lot of stir in the throne room indeed.

I turn my head and look at Madule, part of me deeply disappointed that I'm being interrupted in figuratively kicking this misbegotten and misguided baron in the crotch for having the audacity to dismiss everything that upholds my claim to the throne as mere superstition. I want to make Artos an object lesson, but Madule's right. He didn't intend to insult or imply disloyalty.

I do have to raise an eyebrow at my beloved likening me to a wild stag; I suppose her encounter with the Horned One will stay with her for a long time to come, though I'm sure she knows I would have gone more gently if I had been able. Still, I feel the faintest trace of the heat of a blush of shame in my cheeks. Here's hoping others will attribute it to anger.

I am surprised that Madule makes that public knowledge, though I think I understand her ploy. Being a priestess of the Goddess further strengthens her rightness to sit on the Rose Throne at my side as co-ruler.

I internalize my laughter at the sense of disappointment from Malaquin. Oh, my beloved, you are a beast sometimes, aren't you? Especially when your anger's roused toward someone who would do me any kind of harm?

Too, I feel a hint of shame in him suddenly, and my mind leaps insightfully to the reason why. In truth, now that the Mother's love has soothed the pain away and shown the fear to be simply the natural human fear of the unknown, I get rather aroused thinking of how he'd been--so strong, so forceful, so utterly male.

The noise level in the throne room increases. The nobles who follow the Church are outraged, but the nobles who follow the Mother are almost gleeful as they argue in favor of Malaquin's decision and my status as a priestess. I give my brother a sweet smile. Artos looks like his face might just crumble from shock.

I smile back at my twin, my beloved. "Leave it to you to really get them stirred up," I softly tease her before turning my attention to the poor, bewildered baron.

"As for you . . . You have Our answer and Our twin's answer. Now get you gone, before We decide to not listen to the wise words of Our twin and strip you of your lands and make you beg for your supper as a knight mercenary. Do We make Ourselves clear, Baron Artos? She doesn't want you and We want her to take on the burden of the Rose Throne."

I'll deal with the arguing nobles in a moment, after I see what Artos does.

"You know that it's just one of the things you really like about me," I tease him back, settling my hand a little more firmly on his arm--ladylike, still, but I know he can feel the heat of my palm through his sleeve.

Artos blinks, gulps like a fish pulled from water, and bows hastily, backing away. "Y-yes, Your Highness. I thank you for Your Highness's mercy. I did not mean to give offense . . ."

The quarreling is getting louder. I haven't seen the nobles dedicated to the true faith so happy in years, and the Church-followers look quite the opposite.

I feel very pleased with myself in the way poor Artos scrambles to get away from me. He seems nice enough, but his attitudes! A quaint legend indeed . . .

Around us, the shouting's getting more insistent, and if I'm not careful, the throne room may see bloodshed. I stand up, calling on some of the latent power of the Crown, the royal magic that is my right. Emerald light glimmers around me like an aura as I take a step to stand at the edge of the dais. "Enough!" I roar, and the abrupt silence is almost deafening.

I feel everyone's eyes and attention on me at that moment, this figure full of the dread power and majesty of the throne. The emerald glow dimming to nothingness, I glare at the gathered nobles with eyes colored the same emerald fire. "We wish it to be known right here and now that this Court is a Court that honors the Mother Goddess as it has been since the beginning. Those of you who find you cannot serve the Crown in light of this are hereby dismissed from Our service your feifs reverting back to Us. Now, are there any who will openly renounce your feifs because you find Us lacking the honor and nobility to uphold Our half of the vows exchanged in homage?"

I gaze at my twin in awed admiration. This is a ruler and devoted son of the Goddess; this is what the land needs to reaffirm its ties to the Mother and the natural cycles of life, instead of bowing to the unbalanced tyranny of the Church's one-god.

The silence grows thicker; I realize that I'm standing, that I've been standing since Malaquin returned to the dais.

No one stirs from their seat, and it's very much what I expected. No matter what one believes, to face the lack of security not holding land gives one is too much for many. I have made many enemies just now, and I'm sure the Church will look for some way to rid Aleona of such a heathen, upstart prince, but I want everyone to know where I stand.

I shall deal with the consequences as the Goddess sees fit. I am Hers to command . . .

"Very well," I finally say, seeing no one standing to leave and thereby divesting themselves of their feifs. "We accept your silence as approval of Our rulership and Our wishes. We are glad to see there are no dissenters."

They're going to hate me for that, for maneuvering them into a public display of acceptance of myself and my sister as co-regent. I'm elated at my victory.

With an elegant turn, I smile at my beloved, then nod to Cathal, who's waiting patiently by the door off in the wings. He and my sister's handmaiden have the chest that holds my gift of gold to the nobles as a mark of my--and the Mother's--generosity upon the successful conclusion of the feis and my ascendance to true control of the government.

They had wanted me to turn my back on this, to let it become a sum handed out by the exchequer of the royal treasury, to get away from the magic and the invocation of the Goddess.

I'm not going to let them get away with that.

Malaquin's not a fool; surely he can see the anger and scheming in the faces of the Church-followers now. They'll try to get rid of him, or bring so much pressure to bear on him that he must bend to their ways, but they won't succeed. The two of us are together, and there is no way to break us apart.

I repress a grin at Malaquin's neat maneuver, cornering the nobles and cutting them up into tidy pieces, figuratively speaking. At his nod, I turn to glance over to the door, where Cathal stands with Elaine.

The chest--Malaquin is going to go through with the little ceremony of gifts . . .

With a bright grin, my dusky-blonde servant helps my sister's maid haul in a cart upon which the sturdy, brass-bound oaken chest rests. Though Cathal's family follows the new religion, he himself doesn't, having listened to my reasons why it bothers me so and overheard my conversations with my sister and the priest assigned to us by the regents to be our confessor.

There's a hushed murmur as the nobles watch the chest appear. Though the court is officially adjourned and they are free to go as they please, I'm sure they have stayed to see if the prince's gift would be given. After all, who can resist getting enough money to feed and clothe himself well for an entire year?

I give my sister a sly grin. I hadn't thought of this, since I hadn't known earlier that she was an actual priestess, but the thought comes to me. "Beloved, would you like to bless this gift and those that receive it so that they may know of the bounty of the Goddess?" I ask in a whisper only she can hear. If she wants to do this, I'll let it be her surprise to the nobles.

I watch with a faint smile as Elaine "accidentally" brushes a hand along Cathal's arm. It's nice to see such a common little game out in the open for once, now that I'm the chatelaine. Igraine's attitude had always confused me; both the Mother and the Church had commanded that their children celebrate in the manner of male and female to perpetuate the race, but the Church always complicates things by insisting on the bonds of matrimony. Silly.

I give my brother a sweet smile as I come forward to the chest, then solemnly open it, letting all in the throne room see the small canvas pouches the hold the precious gold. As I extend my hands, palm up, over the open chest, I see the faces of the churchmen grow dark and angry; they know what I'm about to do.

"Let the blessing of the Goddess be upon this bounty and those who receive it. The Spring Maiden brings it forth; the Summer Mother commands that it be used to nurture the lives of Her people; the Winter Crone counsels wisdom in its use, for even the greatest bounty can be reduced to nothing through a lack of foresight." I turn my hands palms-down, as if letting the Goddess's blessing fall from my fingers like water over the chest. "Come forth, those who would accept Her love and generosity."

As for myself, I'm too busy watching my beautiful sister to catch Cathal's quick smile of appreciation. As it is, I'm not overly surprised. Cathal's something of a ladies' man, yet there's been a closeness there between himself and Elaine. How could there not be, since the four of us have practically grown up together?

There's a sense of power, a tingling magic, as my sister's lovely voice calls upon the blessing of the Goddess, and the chest seems to take on a faint radiance that I can almost see. I know that if I opened one of the pouches, the gold coins within would look brighter than normal, and I smile.

Surely the Goddess smiles upon us and this land.

I stand to one side of the chest, waiting. As it will be Madule's job to hand the pouches to those that want one, it will be my job to stand there and permit those that wish to touch me, and take with them some of the power of the God. Some will be men wishing to be more virile, some will be women hoping for the gift of fertility. In any case, it's as much a part of the gift-giving as the physical wealth is. Goddess and God, in balance, giving to Their people the benefits of Their blessings.

The crowd stirs, and I see that the first to approach us are those joyful that the old ways have not been forgotten. They glimmer with a bright light in my mind's eye, a hope for the future of this land. For them, I'm more than willing to do this little ceremony.

Elaine had been the maid that had replaced the one who treated me so poorly; she's become a close friend to me, as Cathal has become a friend to Malaquin. In my current mood, so happy at being joined to my beloved brother, I start to hope for a similar joy to be visited on my dear friend and Malaquin's own friend.

I smile over the chest at my twin. Those who would take the gold out of simple greed, thinking to reject the Mother's spiritual bounty, will heartily regret it. I'm glad to see that the first who come forward are those who truly, deeply believe in the old ways, and I bestow the gifts with a sense of pride and happiness.

I smile back at Madule, then turn my attention to those that offer their words of congratulations as they lay a hand on me and take with them some of the warm, loving power I feel filling me. Only those that truly believe in this magic would even try, and for them, they will get their wish, whether it be for good luck, the making of a child or an increased sense of masculinity. I can feel that the divine is truly generous today, pleased with Madule and myself.

I do notice, however, those that approach only for the gold. Some have still the bright aura--they seek the money for the right reasons--but still others appear dark to my Sight. Many of those are ones that I know will seek my destruction in the fullness of time because I revere the old ways, while others are just greedy, plain and simple.

I pray for them, hoping that one day they will open their minds.

And I'm truly enjoying making the Church-followers that want the money have to take gold blessed by a priestess of the Goddess. I have something of a perverse sense of humor, I fear.

I, too, feel the rich blessing flowing through me, and I touch Malaquin's shoulder gently at one point, smiling at him. I knew that a joining between us would produce joy, not strife; the bloodlines don't matter nearly as much as the emotions, perhaps.

For those who come to take the gold and the spiritual reward as well, I smile warmly; for those who come for greed, I have a sadness in my face, a slight shake of my head, an admonishing glance. And for those who would destroy my brother, or who disdain the Mother, I have a steely gaze that sends them away shaking and uncertain, feeling as though my stare had laid open their souls and exposed all their dark secrets and innermost thoughts.

At last, however, the final nobles that choose to take a gift from us, no matter which it is, do so and leave the nearly empty throne room. Those that remain are the four I've named as my advisors, Cathal and Elaine--for some reason, those two look somewhat anxious to leave, and my manservant only gives me a bit of a knowing smile when I raise an eyebrow in silent questioning--and a slightly large knot of nobles talking amongst themselves, all of whom I recognize as those who follow the old ways.

"Tread carefully, Your Highness," Agricol says to me as he takes up a position behind me. "You have won yourself a large number of enemies."

"I know, but I will no longer hide how I feel about the Church and its grasping for power in my land. They wanted a prince they could push around, and they had one for long enough," I reply.

I turn as I hear Agricol, and give him a dazzling smile. Dipping my hands into the chest, I withdraw four little coin sacks, holding them out to my brother's new advisors, who haven't taken their gifts yet. "Too long, Malaquin. I have the feeling that the Church is going to suffer quite a number of dreadful setbacks in these next few months as you make your power felt."

The duke and the three earls take the offered gifts from my sister, each one looking very pleased.

I glance sidelong at her, once again caught up in admiring her beauty. "Even I can't move too fast, beloved sister, or they will gather their forces and strike back. No, craftiness is what's needed here, to whittle away their power and make them either like it or tolerate it, such as what was done just now."

I grin wickedly, savoring my victory. "Just now, they've had to acknowledge that they get their lands from the Crown--Us--and have to take Goddess-blessed coin if they wanted the gift of wealth. In both cases, they've had to swallow their pride and deal with it in order to get what they wanted. This way will work far more then just wading in and tossing them out of Aleona."

"Still, you have that swallowed pride liable to explode in your face, Highness," Bors adds. "I'm sure the young baron is very disappointed that you got angry at his 'reasonable' offer."

I smile brightly at the four, then grin at Griflet. "Your wife'll be glad of it, my lord. I hear that your children are growing up quite fast, and she has to just about run to keep ahead of them as far as clothing and food goes."

Looking back at Malaquin, I nod. "Oh, I know that quite well, dearest brother. You handled that marvelously. Stick and carrot will be more effective than simply whipping them into line."

I glance over at Bors and make an elaborate expression of disgust. "There was nothing reasonable about that. What an ass. He's been sending me bad poetry for months--if I have to read another labored comparison of myself to twilight or roses or a spirited mare or anything like that, I think I'll vomit."

Griflet gives my sister a good impression of a man at his wit's end. "Oh, indeed, Your Highness. My lads eat us out of house and home, and my lasses are into the latest of fashions, and both are expensive needs."

I look to my four advisors, then motion for the herald to approach as I listen to my sister's words. I just have to grin, thinking I should test her fortitude . . .

"Highness?" the tall, brunette haired man wearing the vert and sable tabard of the kingdom inquires once he joins my party.

"One moment," I tell the herald, noting Cathal and Elaine's apparent restlessness. Turning my attention to them--and noting their blushes when they realize my emerald gaze is upon them--I grin, getting an idea what might be going on. "Yes, yes, get you gone, Cathal. I can see you'd rather be in service elsewhere at the moment."

That gets an even bigger blush as my servant hastily bows and scoots off, dismissed.

Chuckling softly, I return my attention to the herald. "We wish you to deliver a message to the exchequer, herald. Tell him that by Our decree, that We hereby give to our advisors a salary per month equal to the rents due to Our person from their main fiefs. The rents of the other estates are still due and payable, however."

I smirk at the shocked look on the four's faces. They've just been relieved of a large tax burden, though not completely free of taxes. I reward those who have served me well.

I giggle at Griflet's exaggerated horror. "Just think, my lord. When you're old and gray, they'll be supporting you. Savor that idea when your sons are cleaning off the table and your daughters are saying they'll just die if they can't get new gowns."

I look over at the servants as well, then grin as Cathal runs off. Almost casually, I withdraw another two little sacks and hold them out to Elaine. "Be a dear and give one to Cathal when you catch him."

Then I give the other men a steady stare, daring them to say something. It's a stupid conceit that only the nobility deserves to receive a gift of coin along with their blessing; without the common folk, there wouldn't be a kingdom, and I've always been aware of that. It's why I'm on such good terms with the servants, and why so much information finds its way to me; the nobility treats them like furniture, but commoners are not blind or deaf.

No, I'm not going to argue with my beloved over that. I know as well as she that the blessings of the divine are for everyone. In fact, I look at the remaining bags in the chest and note that it's still a quarter full.

I know the treasury can handle the loss of it all. That's why I put so much in the chest to begin with. "Dear sister . . . I see there's still gold left over. Perhaps it would be better served were it taken to the kitchen so that the others that live within these walls may have of this bounty as they will have of the meat of the King Stag that the cook is even now preparing for that gifting?"

I can tell already that I will either be very liked or very disliked by those I rule.

I nod happily to Malaquin's suggestion, then glance at Elaine, murmuring a request that she detour to the kitchen and make the announcement for us. I'll go down there before dinnertime and finish handing out the money.

Taking Malaquin's hand, I smile proudly at him. "What next, dear brother?"

"Hmm . . ." I have to smile as I get away once again with kissing her hand, though this time I let the caress of my lips linger there as long as I dare. "Perhaps a retreat from the public eye, dear sister? We have been before the watchful stares of our subjects for most of the day so far."

I know the suggestion won't seem amiss. Madule and I are well known for retreating to a room to be together and just talk after having to be in the public's eye doing some court function or another.

I nod eagerly at the idea. "Yes--I'd like that. A little quiet time by ourselves would be wonderful."

Elaine, staring at the little pouches in her hand, is going dazedly out the door, headed for the kitchens.

"My lords, if you would please?" I hint around to the four advisors, hoping that they would take from me the regalia. They don't disappoint me either, the lords swiftly taking from me the items they had vested me with earlier. They would see to it that the jewels are replaced where they are safely stored.

Feeling a bit more like myself than the dreaded Argent Stag, I smile and offer my arm to my sister, more than willing to lead the way back through the antechamber and to my quarters.

I firmly take the rosewood case for my own circlet from Agricol, hugging it against my side as I take Malaquin's arm. I give my brother a slight frown--more for show than anything else. "I wish you hadn't just taken this without saying anything. I was frantic, thinking that it had been stolen."

I had thought that, and the idea had driven me into near panic. I had been so young when I begged to be allowed to wear something pretty, like the magnificent crown that my brother had rights to; after Malaquin added his voice to mine, ordering that something be provided, the coronet had been given to me. It was very unorthodox, since--like the Rose Throne--the lovely garland-like crown was meant for the prince's wife . . . but now that seemed all the more appropriate to me.

The old duke just grins as my twin grabs the box for her coronet and holds onto it like it's the most precious thing in the world, the glittering, white gold coronet still gracing her head. He understands her covetous gesture.

"If I had said anything, beloved, you would have guessed that I had something in mind, and I was more interested in surprising you," I reply, pointing out to her my very obvious logic while we make our way to through the little hallway and enter the antechamber. My voice then drops to a low purr. "You seem very pleased with your surprise, my beloved."

"You did surprise me--and I'm very pleased with it!" I hug his arm tightly, leaning against him for a moment in pure happiness. "Oh, Malaquin, this is a wonderful gift. I've wanted to do more than just advise you on our own time and look decorative during court. You've given me something truly wonderful. This is the happiest day of my life, Malaquin!"

It's perfectly true. Within a very short time span indeed, I've had my eighteenth birthday, been made a woman in the sacred feis, become the lover to the only man I could ever consider being with, taken over as chatelaine of Hart Castle, and been given equal rulership with my beloved twin. What else could happen to make it better? Nothing, most likely.

Chapter Two silver rose bullet Chapter Four

This page formatted and © 2001 - 2002 by Dianna Silver

"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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