Argent Stag, Silver Rose

Chapter Four: Confrontation

"I'm so very pleased that I've made you this happy, Madule," I respond, resting my dark haired head against hers for a brief moment before I pull open the heavy wooden, iron-hinged door that accesses the main corridor leading to the royal chambers.

For so long, it's been us against "them", two young children doing their best to grow up and be the best rulers possible because that's what we were supposed to do. That what we've decided is best differs from what others--especially those tied to the unbalanced views of the Church--think is best is a moot point. We are doing our best, and that's all anyone can expect from either one of us.

"May we have many more just as happy, beloved. You know I'll do what I can to make it that way for you."

The hall leading to the royal apartments is very quiet, empty right now. I wait for Malaquin to shut the door behind us before taking his arm again, continuing along the corridor to his chambers. A thrill of eagerness darts through me as we reach his door; I've been in here before, of course, but that was before this new intimacy grew between us.

"I know, Malaquin. And I'm going to do anything and everything I can to make sure that you're happy, that the weight of rulership doesn't feel too heavy a load for you to bear. I'll be here for you, my precious twin, forever."

I smile at her words, a warm tingle inside me at her conviction and her eagerness to please me and help me. "Good, because I've come to rely upon you so much, Madule. I can't even think of a world without you here with me," I softly admit as I open the door to my chambers then step aside to allow my sister to walk in first.

As always, the sitting chamber feels like a snug, comfortable retreat. I've long used it as a library; since I was taught by the Church priest assigned to us as a confessor how to read, I've gone out of my way to collect manuscripts, books and scrolls, making this room where I house my collection and read these written treasures.

Of course, I never let slip to anyone that I taught Madule how to read, passing on my daily lessons to her whenever we could slip away and find time to play together unobserved. That we are so highly educated is something most people don't realize, and an advantage to us both.

I step through the door and set the rosewood case down on the desk, looking around the comfortable, familiar room. I loved the secret that we shared--that I, too, could read, that we both had managed to collect such a surprising number of books and scrolls. We used to take turns reading to each other--first when Malaquin was teaching me, then simply because we enjoyed it so.

I turn to look at him, the short train of my brocade gown curving gracefully around my feet as I hold out my hands to him almost imploringly. "I need you with me too, Malaquin. I would have no world without you--there would be no joy in my life, no meaning. You're all that truly matters to me, and you always have been, always will be."

Ah, my lady love, my dearest sister, how you beseech me with arms and eyes. Of course, I cannot ignore your pleas.

I take her hands in mine, giving them a gentle squeeze, before lifting one up and turning it over, nibbling gently on the skin of the underside of her wrist before kissing it. "I love you, Madule. You were wonderful today, helping me set the nobles straight as to how this land will be governed. I was so proud of you."

A slight shiver runs through me at that nibble, then the soft kiss. "I love you so. You were magnificent, standing there and shattering their schemes, reducing their hopes of controlling you to ash." I touch his cheek lightly, lifting my chin to best display my face, the styling of my hair, the shimmering coronet around my head. "Was I pretty today?"

I have to smile at her and her need to be reassured. I gaze down at her, this lovely woman so like me, this familiar person that I know almost as well as I know myself, my emerald eyes warm with my love and admiration of her. "You were far more than merely 'pretty', Madule. You were the most gorgeous creature that I have ever laid eyes upon this day."

It's the simple truth, and I mean every word of it.

I glow with the praise, stepping back to catch hold of the sides of my skirt, spreading out the rich fabric to show off the silver embroidery and the soft black underskirt, turning my head to draw attention to the emerald earrings and the rope of pearls around my throat. "Do you like the changes I had made to the dress? The black embroidery looked too subtle to me, though it looks wonderful on you."

I know that I'm being rather vain, but that's always been a fault of mine; it's hard not to develop a strong awareness of one's appearance when one has been told since childhood that one is uncommonly beautiful. Besides, I want to hear Malaquin tell me how pretty I am.

"Yes, very much so. I have to agree that the silver looks far more fetching on you than the black would have," I answer, keeping my gaze on the very lovely sight. "The way it shimmers when you move . . . It accents the curves of your figure and draws attention to your natural grace."

I note her choice of jewelry and smile brightly at that. "I see you decided to wear some of our mother's emeralds and pearls. They suit you very well, beloved."

I can't help but giggle in pure, girlish delight at his admiring gaze and words. I perform a little twirl so he can see the back as well, then stop and raise a hand to the emerald pendant at my cleavage. Sadness dampens my joy for a moment as I touch the cool stone and its pale setting, warmed from my skin. "I miss Mother so much. It hurts that I can barely remember now."

"I suppose it's better that we not remember much anymore," I reassure her. But I remember . . .

I remember that day, long ago, as evening fell . . .

Father had already succumbed to the illness that swept through Hart Castle, part of a wave of plague that happened on the heels of an unusually hot summer. Madule and I had been ill as well. I recall feeling like I was immersed in flame, my throat swollen to the point where breathing and swallowing were too hard to do other than what had to be done to try to keep my young body alive. Even so, I survived, and so had my twin, but Mother had gotten worse . . .

They brought us to her, the two of us still feeling ill but strong enough to be out of bed for short periods of time, and she looked so pale, a mere shadow of herself . . .

She managed to give us a smile and a gentle touch. I still remember her raspy whisper, telling us to watch over one another and that she was sorry she had to leave us behind.

A few whispered words of love and regret, and we were ushered away, our promise to her to look after one another the last thing between Mother and the two of us.

She was gone within a few hours after that, but they didn't tell us until a week later, when we were obviously on the road to recovery.

I hated them for not telling me sooner . . .

I feel ashamed that the memory of the plague is more vivid at times than the memory of losing our parents. I had been more affected by the sickness than Malaquin--he was always the stronger of the two of us--and until I became too ill to do more than lie there quietly, I had been virtually insufferable. Crying at the ache of my flesh and the terrible fever and the cramping of my stomach, which wouldn't hold anything solid for very long before rejecting it, refusing to let them put Malaquin and myself in separate beds until the sickness ran its course.

Mother had been so beautiful, so gentle and loving. Seeing her that last time, hearing the frightening words that meant she was leaving us, I had cried again, clinging to her bedsheets. I had to be carried away, finally. Losing our strong, noble father, who had adored us and been virtually worshiped in return, had been hard enough; learning that Mother had gone as well, and that we hadn't been told until we were strong enough to ask to see her, had been a crippling blow.

Why did they lie to us and keep it a secret? I had never understood that.

The memories push away the flare of vanity. Dropping my hand from the pendant, I step closer to Malaquin, pressing myself against him, my voice soft and subdued. "We've kept the promise we made to Mother, haven't we?"

"I like to think so, dear sister. We've come this far together, doing what's right for people and land despite what the regents have tried," I reassure her, hugging her close. It's always been the two of us against the world, and now, at last, we have the power to really do something about things that bother us.

I lower my head and nuzzle her hair with my chin, breathing in the alluring scent of her. Could any woman smell as enticing as Madule? I think not. "Thank you, beloved. I probably would have lost my way long ago if you hadn't been here with me to keep me from straying. I owe you so much . . .

"I was afraid I would lose you too, to the sickness, way back when. I didn't want to be left alone . . ."

Malaquin's soothing embrace eases the old pain in my heart; he's so strong, so utterly perfect, and so completely mine now. No other woman could possibly take him away from me.

"They wanted to lead you astray, to make you a son of their Church instead of the Goddess. I couldn't let them do it--it was wrong." My hands caress his back gently, slowly. "I was afraid, too. I know that I was close to dying there for a while, but every time I just wanted to let go and get away from the pain, I'd feel you take my hand and I'd hear you begging me not to leave you . . ."

Ah, my brave, brave Madule. How you have suffered on my behalf. I kiss her raven colored hair, my hands sliding down her womanly form slowly, the feel of the rich cloth and the silver embroidery soft and warm to my fingertips. "How did you manage it, to learn what they didn't want you to know? By the time I understood what was happening, there was nothing I could do about it, even had I had actual power."

Her hands on my back, her body pressed against mine . . . Both make me very aware of her feminine presence, this woman who is but the other half of myself. Desire curls within me, a banked flame that needs only a small amount of encouragement to flare to life again. Goddess, how I need her . . .

His words make me smile, triumphantly. The sorrow fades away as I recall what I'd done. "Elaine's sister Alicia is a priestess. When Elaine found out that I wanted to learn what the regents were forbidding me to learn, she asked if I wanted her to help make the arrangements. She and her sister are almost perfectly identical, so Alicia would come to my chambers pretending to be Elaine and give me the lessons instead of just fussing over me like an ordinary maidservant."

I slide my hands up his back to play with his loose braid of thick hair, grinning.

"Ah . . ." It all makes sense now why there were times it seemed as if Elaine had forgotten something that had only happened the day before. It was a quirk that I had come to accept. "I hadn't realized that she has a sister or that they come from a family that still follows the proper ways. I suppose that's only logical." I wryly smile, my thoughts dwelling on the overbearing way the eight Church-following regents had insisted that Madule and I be raised as "proper" royalty, over the objections of the loyal four. I can't blame Agricol and the others for not fighting harder; they did what they could, but being constantly outvoted makes things difficult.

I believe my uncle didn't know what those eight were truly like when he appointed them regents just in case something happened to himself. Goddess, I hope so. I would be hurt indeed if Uncle Ambrut had done this to us on purpose.

I have to smile at Madule's caress of my hair. "Perhaps you'd like to undo the braid?" I suggest.

I love having her hands on me.

I grin up at my twin, playing with his hair. "I suppose you thought that Elaine was just scatterbrained, forgetting all sorts of things at strange times. Poor Alicia improvised as best she could . . ."

His suggestion makes me giggle; gently, I start untying the ribbon holding the end of his braid. "Certainly, Malaquin. I'd love to pretend to be your valet for once. Shall we go into your bedroom, dearest brother, and we'll get you out of these fine clothes so that they don't wrinkle?"

"Well, there are some of the fairer sex that sound like a flute when a brisk wind blows against their heads," I kiddingly tell my sister, hinting that some women are so hollow-headed there would be nothing stopping a breeze from traveling in one ear and out the other. "I didn't put it past the regents to give you a simpleminded handmaid," I add, walking across the confines of my private library to the door opposite the entry and tugging my sister along with me.

The sturdy door opens silently; I've long had the habit of keeping the iron hinges well-maintained so that a creaking door wouldn't alert someone that Madule was slipping into my bed yet again. Even after she no longer needed to come here because it was frightening in the dark, I kept up the habit of making sure my doors opened silently.

Why let something develop that could disturb my sleep? I didn't see any sense in that.

The room is familiar, the bed a work of art of carved rosewood-veneered oak, a huge four-poster with a canopy and fine, see-through curtains--all the better to keep out the insects come summer yet let in cool night air. Tapestries line the stone walls and sturdy rugs lie on the floors, all of which are masterworks of the weaver's art.

It's a sumptuous chamber, and every bit fit for the royal couple that rules over this fair land.

I giggle wickedly at Malaquin's remark, following him across the room. "I think I was lucky the second time. My first maid . . . well, you know what she did." I almost slipped there, almost said something that would indicate the role I'd had in that wench's fate.

The door's as silent as I remember it being. There had been times, long after I'd gotten over my fear of the dark and of thunderstorms, that had crept into Malaquin's room again--not to sleep, but just to look at him, to spend a little time watching the soft glow of moonlight on his familiar, beloved face and thinking sadly about how much distance the regents were trying to force on us.

The bedroom hasn't changed very much since I last saw it--a few things moved around, some new trinkets here and there. The bed's just as big and splendid as I remember, and a hot blush touches my cheeks as I look at it with eyes that are no longer a little girl's, but a woman's.

Ah yes, how could I forget that? The maid was found guilty of stealing some of my sister's jewels. Though I didn't pass judgment on her--the regents saw to that--they made me attend the whole process, for my education in rulership and justice as well as a symbolic approval of the proceedings by my royal presence.

It was the first time I had seen state-ordered death, and even now, at times, I can see the woman's body swinging from the gallows, her limbs twitching though tightly bound at wrists and ankles, the skin of her face and neck turning purple-blue in her final agonies.

I had wanted to vomit up everything within my stomach at the time. Even now, the thought makes me ill.

I close my eyes, forcing the dark memories away. I'd much rather concentrate on happier things. "Yes, well, I'm certainly glad Elaine and her sister have been good to you. That makes me happy, knowing that."

The regents had made sure that I witnessed the execution--not that I really put up much of a fight. I'd felt a great deal of satisfaction when the woman was arrested and brought to trial . . . but the shocking finality of the hanging had shaken me to the core--it was made ten times worse by the fact that the woman's neck hadn't snapped cleanly when the platform dropped. The rope hadn't been aligned correctly, and had only fractured the spine and crushed the windpipe; the woman had suffocated, and not with any merciful speed. The superficial pleasure I'd had, ridding myself of a tormenter, felt like more of a mask to help hide the horrible guilt and sickness I still carried inside me.

I manage a smile as I step around behind Malaquin to work his hair free of the braid. "We've done a great deal more than the regents planned for, haven't we?"

"Yes, and I'm not sorry for that," I reply, my emerald eyes closing at the feel of her hands sifting through the strands of my hair, undoing the loose plait. Taking a breath, I softly sigh and let my voice fall to a low murmur. "I couldn't tell you how long the more adamant ones argued with me over the wisdom of doing something as dangerous and 'barbaric' as the feis and something as 'quaintly superstitious' as having a woman dole out the prince's gift. But the more they badgered me, telling me that I would bring God's displeasure on not only myself but those poor people in my care, the more determined I became to do as tradition and divine command decreed. That's one of the reasons why I did what I did in Court. I wanted to toss it right back into their faces that I rule now, not them."

I finish loosening his hair, then run my fingers gently through the silky cascade, smoothing it out. "You did it all the right way, Malaquin. The feis had to be done, and the gift would have been demeaned by being turned into nothing more than a money offering."

I laugh softly at the ferocious satisfaction in his voice as I circle around him to begin unfastening his clothing. "You certainly did a lot of tossing, beloved brother. They got quite a faceful of blunt truth."

Hearing her affirm my decisions as the right thing only makes me more proud of my accomplishments so far; of everyone, her words mean the most to me. I do so much want to make her pleased with me, proud to have me as her brother. "Thank you for the support, beloved."

Then she steps in front of me, her nimble fingers starting to untie the lacings of my court garb. So beautiful . . . I reach up and start to undo what I can of her intricate hairstyle--both the coronet and her position limits what is in reach for me--almost desperate to touch her back.

I'm not going to worry about whether it's right or wrong. We both want this, and neither one of us have been struck down by the wrath of the divine. Who's to say this isn't the way it's supposed to be for the two of us?

And if it's wrong, well, I'd rather have this and be damned than not and be saintly . . .

I duck my head a bit with a giggle as he tries to puzzle out the intricate braiding that my hair's been drawn up into. "You can take off my coronet, love. Oh--I left the case in the other room . . . hold on."

I scoot into the library again to pick up the rosewood box. A knock on the door makes me freeze in my tracks; a loud, angry male voice calls out with bare civility. "Your Royal Highness! We wish an audience with you--now!"

I hug the carved box against my breast, a sharp chill cutting through me. It's one of the high-ranking churchmen, probably accompanied by a few cronies, no doubt coming to argue with my brother.

I don't like this particular man. Something about him unsettles me, discomforts me; there's something in his eyes, especially when he looks at me, that makes me want to get away from him.

The hell? The shout at the door to my suite catches my attention, makes my feelings of desire shift to ones of irritation. Still, this is one situation that should be diffused as soon as possible.

I knew I would be stirring up a hornet's nest, sooner or later.

I stride into the outer room, taking up a position between the door and Madule. Gently pressing on her, pushing her back, I turn my head to look at her. "Get into my bedroom and shut the door. Whatever you do, don't let them have a clue you're in there," I softly command her. "Let me handle this. They wouldn't dare do anything at the moment."

Hugging the rosewood case against my chest, I stare at Malaquin anxiously. "Are you sure? You don't want me to stay in here with you while you talk to them?"

The banging comes again on the door--hard, arrogant blows of a meaty fist. "Your Highness!"

"I'm sure." I don't like the sound of the banging or the tone of that voice. Let their wrath fall upon me for now; I'm the one most to blame. "If I need you, I'll ask you to join me. But for now, I'd rather spare you the unpleasantness."

"If you're sure . . ." I nod--reluctantly--and hurry through the bedroom door, closing it softly behind me . . . and immediately kneeling to watch through the keyhole as the loud knocking comes again.

"Keep your trousers on, m'lords," I shout out, sensing my sister's retreat. Gathering together my concentration, I let the aura of my majesty settle around me, an invisible but palpable sense that I am the sovereign here. I know I'll seem to look as regal and majestic as ever, even with my hair down and my clothing obviously partially undone.

Stepping forward, I open the door and take a look to see who it is. I step aside to allow them entry into my quarters, but my expression is one that lets them know that they are being allowed into my presence at my sufferance, not theirs. "Yes, m'lords?"

The first man through the door is a heavyset, blocky brute who would look more at home in armor than in the black ecclesiastical robes; Abbot Grelain might well have been a warrior before he became a churchman. His features are crude, seeming almost as if they're only half-finished, and his cold blue eyes glint from beneath the bangs of his close-shorn cap of dark-blond hair. There's about four others with him, but it's hard to catch sight of them through the little keyhole.

"What is this madness, your Highness?" Grelain certainly gets right to the point. "Are you deliberately trying to destroy everything that has been accomplished by the regency over nearly a decade and a half?!"

"And what would you say if I said that I was?" I give the words enough of a teasing tone to let them think that I'm merely joking with them. It's a role I've come to do very well over the years. I calmly walk over to my favorite chair, which sits next to the imposing hearth of the room's fireplace and take a seat there, letting myself lounge casually in the seat. "So far, I've heard no complaints save the one you've just voiced."

I look over the four others that almost storm into the room with the dear abbot. Just like their leader, they all appear far more worldly and far more like soldiers than the supposed men of God they are.

"Naturally you haven't--what with that grandstanding display of open blackmail you just conducted in the throne room! Destroying years of peace and prosperity in your childish rebellion!" Grelain's voice is loud, harsh; when I was a child, I hated that voice. Even now, with a solid door and my own royal blood and status as a shield, the noise still makes me cringe.

He continues, storming back and forth in short, pacing strides. "Disrupting your own castle and the very government of the land just to spoil your sister! By God, that old fool Agricol should have heeded us long ago and made a clean separation between you two, put her into a nunnery--it would have made you more of a man, and tamed that willful streak in the girl's nature. You spent all your time letting her spiteful words twist you away from a true ruler's wisdom, and turn you into this? Pah!"

"Blackmail? I daresay that is a very strong word to use against me, Abbot." My emerald eyes narrow, my disgust at this overbearing ox not hidden for once. Still, I remain in my chair, choosing now to take on an almost obscene, overly relaxed pose. They want to see me as something other than what I am? Then so be it.

I can hear the soft mutters of disapproval from a couple of the others with the abbot. I don't think they like the implication of hedonism in my lounging in the chair. "Look at him. He goes off into the woods and returns even less than a man."

I quell my growing anger, but that last comment has me close to exploding.

"Strong? It's truth! It's hard indeed to get a man's honest support when you threaten to take away his lands and livelihood if he disagrees with you!" Grelain glares darkly at Malaquin, his voice rasping my nerves.

"Arrogant pup. He goes through a foolish ceremony, fucks some pagan bitch, and now he thinks he can rearrange everything to suit himself," another man agrees with the first mutterer.

"Him and that sister of his. You'd think they were joined at the hip--or married!" another adds.

"You know as well as I that the land is given to a noble in exchange for promising to obey the Crown and the lawful dictates of the ruler. If you or anyone else disagrees with me and cannot follow me, then you can't uphold your half of the promise and I'm well within my rights to take back that gift. I see no blackmail there."

It's hard to look unbothered by their mutterings, especially as they're getting quite bold in their words.

"Shameful. He'll cause another plague to be visited upon the land," I hear the fourth cleric join in the chorus.

I slowly stand up, letting the aura of my royalty flare up into a glimmer of emerald light. "I suggest, gentle lords, that you start minding your tongues before you forget to whom you're speaking."

"Then you're being deliberately blind!" Grelain shoots back harshly. "Is there to be no reasonable discussion? Is your rule to be that of a tyrant, then?"

One of the clerics has the nerve to snap back at Malaquin. "We certainly know who we're speaking to--a coddled little boy who believes he can snap his fingers and turn everything topsy-turvy at his whim! A boy who clings to his sister's skirts instead of doing his proper duty and getting her married off!"

I can't help myself. I see red at the words the cleric dares speak to me. Before I can stop myself, I lift a hand and point at the wall just next to and behind the offending fool. Half surprised and half expecting it, I watch as a bolt of emerald fire leaps from my hand to explode against the wall, leaving a scorch mark.

In the shocked silence that follows, I glare at the abbot and his followers. "How can there be any sort of reasonable discussion with your men yammering at me? You wish to talk? Then get them the hell out of my chambers!" I stride over and throw open the door, emphasizing my order, then glare at the men to make their exit quickly.

I cringe back from the keyhole, covering my eyes, the intense light of the green flame leaving a bright shadow behind my eyelids. How did Malaquin do that?!

The abbot growls. "Witchcraft. Did your sister teach you that? What a sad state for this land to have come to--ruled by a weak boy and his witch sister." An expression of bitter glee comes onto Grelain's face. "Nobody knows where your sister went yesterday, while you were in the woods. Supposedly she was hiding in her room, but someone managed to get a look inside and she wasn't there--but some young priestess was found praying in a storage room around noon . . ."

"Pathetic fool, to not know the power of the throne when you see it," I shout back at the abbot. "Or do you dare tell me that there is no divine magic to a rightfully anointed prince?" I can feel the emerald flame, dancing there in me, ready to burst forth at my command. The power to defend land and people, brought to full life by the rite of the feis.

I clench my fist and the flame appears again, a verdant agent of destruction dancing around my flesh without burning or consuming. A pointed look from my equally fearsome gaze and two of the clerics decide that perhaps I'm not exactly the safest person to confront at the moment. As they scramble, I turn my darkened visage to Grelain. "Where my sister was is of no concern of yours. However, if you must know, she was with me." It's true enough, Goddess knows. But how far can I take this without letting them know? "She was worried about me, and stayed in the company of the women, so that she could be the first to know if I was well or not."

The other two clerics decide that their fellows have the best idea, and flee like rabbits. Grelain stands his ground, out of bravery or stupidity. "Somehow I doubt that, Your Highness. The only young woman among that little flock was the priestess that you were meant to lie with." He narrows those cold blue eyes, and his voice is utterly vicious. "And did you lie with her, Your Highness? Your own sister? Is she waiting in your bed right now, with those lovely legs spread, ready to reward you for giving her that crown and throne?"

"For someone a man of God, you have a very foul and unholy mind. I'm amazed you think you know who made up the party of priestesses and men that took me out into the Mother's embrace and had me undergo the proper ritual for the prosperity of this land." I can't believe how calm I am on the outside, a sly smirk on my face, though this bane of my existence has guessed the truth. "I swear upon the blood of your crucified God that the woman I laid with was the priestess chosen for that duty, to initiate me into the mysteries of manhood." I let the emerald flame stay dancing around my clenched fist as a potent reminder of my power as prince.

My eyes narrow. "As for my sister, I suggest you hold your tongue. If I find any reason to believe that you have knowledge of whether her legs are lovely or not, you will answer to me as her protector. Do you understand?"

"No, prince, it is you who needs to understand." Grelain smirks at Malaquin, slapping a thick palm down on the edge of the desk, his voice dropping to a gravelly growl. "I know that there was only one young woman in that party--and that she spent the night with you. And I know that it was the beautiful Princess Madule." He whirls and, remarkably fast for a man of his size, comes to the bedroom door. I only have time to stand, stepping back, before he yanks the door open.

He looks only slightly surprised--and disappointed--that I'm not naked in Malaquin's bed. Grabbing my arm just above the elbow with one hand, he pulls me, stumbling, into the library. "It's not proper for a lady to visit a man's bedroom alone, even if he is her brother," he sneers contemptuously. "Come along now, little princess. I'll take you to your own chambers. And perhaps you and I will have a little talk about your marriage prospects, hmm?"

"No!" My voice rings out, full of fury and command. Something about him makes my internal alarms go off, and I know I should never let him take my sister anywhere.

He'll rape her, take her by force, use her because she's no better than a slut and a whore and he's lusted after her. I don't know if it's true, but I believe this feeling that overwhelms me.

With a growl, I spring from the door, the eerie light of my magic casting shadows on the wall, across the floor. My flaming hand grasps him at the back of his neck, and I can feel the heat as it burns into him, this foul creature that dares lay a profane hand on my beloved sister. I yank hard, pulling him back, somehow managing to toss his bulky weight to the floor, then stand between him and my twin. My legs braced, my tall form in a defensive crouch, the light of my anger and power there in my hand, I watch to see what he does next. "If anyone talks to her about marriage, it will be me. You dare presume to usurp Our rights as prince?"

Grelain's hand is wrenched loose from my arm, and he hits the floor hard even as lose my balance and fall to my knees, feeling more frightened than I have in years. The man's hand seems to have left a permanent stain on my arm, even through the sleeve of my dress; I have to struggle to keep from being ill as I wrap my arms tightly around my ribs.

Grelain howls, clamping his hand to the back of his neck; the reek of singed skin and hair makes my stomach lurch a little. Growling, he shoves himself up to a kneeling position, glaring hatred at Malaquin. "You little bastard! Do you really think that you have any power anymore? Do you think you can defy the Church, all by yourself?"

"He's not alone!" I shout back, anger burning hot in my heart. "You couldn't break us apart before, and together, we can't be beaten!"

"Bitch," Grelain hisses, getting to his feet. "You should have been taught your proper place years ago--both of you!" And he pulls a knife from his belt, and comes for Malaquin with that terrible speed.

I'm not quite sure what happens as it does. I only see the flash of live steel and the big cleric coming straight at me. Praying to the Goddess, I point my hand right at him, right at his head. Emerald fire erupts from me, spurred on by my fury and my fright.

I hear heavy bootsteps running down the hall. The commotion's caught someone's attention, and someone's coming. I hear a familiar voice shouting, ordering someone around.

Agricol! He must have been nearby with a couple of the royal guard, expecting trouble . . .

My hands are on Malaquin's arm, and I'm not sure how they got there--but I feel a surging power coursing through us both, like two channels feeding into a mighty river. The unfocused fire splashes over Grelain's shoulder, scorching his robe and the flesh beneath, and he shouts in pain--but he still comes onward, enough to slash at Malaquin's face.

The next surge of power crests as I pull Malaquin desperately back with me, away from the knife's arc, silently screaming for the Goddess to help us. The emerald flame bursts forth again--and this time it's not a wild flare. A sharp, clean bolt leaps from Malaquin's fingers, spearing through the abbot's gut.

The big man screams and doubles over, the knife falling from his hand as he clutches at the terrible wound.

I look at the wounded man, aghast, shocked by what's happened, barely feeling Madule's hands on me or the burning pain of the shallow slash that now marks my cheek and causes thin rivulets of scarlet blood to drip down my cheek. I'm still standing there, stunned, when the duke comes bursting in with a pair of the efficient, well-trained guards.

The abbot doesn't get to scream for long at all. Agricol takes one look at the situation, then gives a curt command. "Execute the traitor." A flash of steel and blood stains the floor of my library. Blood drips down my cheek as sudden silence fills the room.

I'm not sure I'm even still alive.

"Get rid of the carcass," Agricol barks, and the two large warriors hasten to obey his command. His countenance softening slightly, pale blue eyes warming and looking at us in concern, Agricol kneels down and looks us over. "Are you all right, Your Highnesses?"

My hands are clenched tightly around Malaquin's arm, and I realize that I might be hurting him. Loosening my grip, I still cling to him, starting to tremble as I stare at the man who lies screaming on the floor.

Agricol's harsh order is carried out with a clinical efficiency, and I let out a short, sickened scream, burying my face against Malaquin's back to shut out the gruesome sight. The hanging execution had actually been cleaner than this.

I pull myself together a little at the duke's concerned question, and manage to speak--without lifting my head, though. "M-Malaquin's hurt. Have some things brought so that I can take care of him?"

"Of course, Your Highness. Perhaps the two of you should go to your room, Princess?" Though the duke herds us out of the way and does his best to keep us distracted, I'm quite aware of the muttered curses of the guards and the slide of cooling flesh across my room's floors.

The sting of the cut hits me now, and I close my eyes, shivering in delayed reaction as I touch a hand to my cheek. I'm not overly surprised it comes away stained with blood. "Madule?" I softly call out, hoping that she's okay. I can't get the image out of my mind, of the huge abbot forcing himself on my sister . . .

More footsteps, then startled cursing. Cathal.

Agricol leaves us for a moment, and I hear him walk to just outside my rooms, his low voice talking to my rather agitated-sounding servant. He's probably telling Cathal to get something to take care of my wound and to get the staff up here to clean my library. It's going to need it.

"Y-yes, Agricol. Yes. I-I have some things there that I can use to tend to him . . ."

Malaquin's voice sounds dazed, almost distant. I take his free hand gently, squeezing. "I'm here, Malaquin. I'm all right--he didn't get past you to hurt me."

I can't open my eyes--I'm afraid of what I might see. I somehow manage to get back to the bedroom to retrieve that rosewood box--I have to open my eyes then, but I keep them averted from the middle of the room--then return to Malaquin's side.

I feel so alone when she leaves my side, my gaze becoming riveted to the darkening pool of blood on my floor that reminds me that rulership isn't a bed of roses without its dangerous thorns. It's with a deep sense of relief when she returns to me from my bedchamber, and I take her free hand in mind, loathe to let her go.

Leading the way, we walk out of my violated chambers--will I ever feel safe in there again? Maybe some day in the future--and down the hall a short distance to my sister's rooms. There are guards watching the hallway, and the blood trail glistens along the floor.

As I stand at Madule's side and let go of her hand out of necessity--she alone has a key that opens her lock and will need to unlock her door if she wasn't in too much of a hurry earlier today--Cathal trots up to us, looking mussed up and out of breath, his hands full of first aid supplies. "Mal? Madule? Are you two okay? I would never have left if I had known . . ."

"It's all right, Cathal. It wasn't expected," I manage to softly say, trying to reassure my friend and servant.

I fumble my key out of my sleeve and get the door unlocked despite my trembling hands. This is the first time that actual violence has been directed toward either of us--not in some training spar or mock fight, but a true attempt to hurt us. I feel like I've fallen into a nightmare that I can't wake up from.

My head jerks at the sound of Cathal's voice, but then I manage to relax again, recognizing him. Pushing open the door into my sitting room, I wave both men inside--then lock the door behind us. "Cathal--get his tunic and shirt off before the blood gets onto his clothes and stains." It's strange to hear my own voice making such a calm, reasoned directive when my mind is in chaos.

"Right away, Highness," Cathal replies, then starts stripping me out of my expensive, brand-new court garb. It's amazing how deft my servant can be at times, slipping tunic and undershirt off me without getting any of the blood on the fine fabric.

I just stand there, still a bit numbed by the sequence of events, shivering slightly in the cool air of my sister's room now that my upper body's bare and exposed.

I nod as Cathal completes that task with his usual efficiency; then I see Malaquin shiver, and I point promptly to the fireplace. "Light that, please."

I manage to get Malaquin over to one of my chairs--dark, polished mahogany wood with delicately needlepointed cushions done in rich, deep colors; no insipid pastels for me, thank you. It's a bit odd to see my brother's tall, muscled form sitting in one of those little chairs, but I manage to shake off the urge to sit and stare like an idiot.

Sorting through the supplies that Cathal's brought, I come up with some gauze and begin gently mopping up the blood oozing down Malaquin's cheek. "Brother . . . are you going to be all right?"

"As you wish," the dusky-blonde servant swiftly replies, and I hear his familiar footsteps as he makes himself useful and starts to work on getting a fire started.

With my sister pushing and prodding, I end up sitting almost precariously on the elegantly needlepointed cushions of her little chairs. I must admit, I don't often find myself in her rooms--I think the last time was well over a year ago, when I was invited in to wait for her to get ready for an outing going hawking--and it's an odd sensation to me to be sitting here with her fussing over me. At least I'm starting to feel like things will be able to get back to normal.

I know she's trying to be careful, but the dabbing at my cheek stings. I close my eyes, taking stock of myself. "I think so. The wound hurts and I feel suddenly very tired, but I seem to be otherwise all right."

"I'm glad." Simple words, delivered in a near-whisper, as I clean him up. The salve is next, smoothing gently over the thin cut; then the brown, strong-scented pine tar to seal it together--less cumbersome than a bandage would have been on his cheek.

Once I'm done with that--and the fire is going--I glance at Cathal again. "Please bring Malaquin something else to wear? I don't think he'll want to go back into his own chambers for a while, but we can't leave him sitting about in his good clothes."

"So am I," I whisper back to her, doing my best to not move my mouth that much as she tenderly ministers to the cut. As far as wounds go, it's really nothing--I've gotten worse on the training field, of course--but I'd rather not bear a scar there if I can help it.

Cathal nods and swiftly goes to the door, unlocking the catch. "When I return, Highness, I'll knock on the door in that secret pattern. Then you'll know it's me. Please, be careful."

I feel the draft as my servant slips out the door, then look back at my sister after the door shuts. I know Cathal was hinting at her to lock it behind him.

Rap, rap, rap in quick succession, a pause, then a lone rap to finish. That's "the pattern" and it goes back to our childhood days, when Madule would tap on my door in that pattern to let Cathal know he should let her in.

Once he's gone and it's just the two of us, I sigh and close my eyes. "Goddess, Madule . . . What have we done?"

I catch Cathal's hint and quickly follow him to the door, locking it again behind him. Then I return to Malaquin's side to make sure I've cleaned all the blood from his skin. "We did what we had to," I respond softly, touching his unmarked cheek. "He . . . wanted to hurt us, maybe kill us. We didn't have any choice but to fight back."

I dab a last bit of blood from just under the curve of his jaw, then start slowly back toward the door in anticipation of Cathal's return. Glancing over my shoulder at Malaquin, I bite my lip a little. "What do you think he meant, he wanted to talk about my marriage prospects?"

Again, the image goes through my mind and I shudder, looking over my beautiful, wonderful sister with haunted eyes. "He wasn't going to talk, Madule. I--if you thought the Horned One was rough . . ." I swallow hard, looking away, looking at one of the tapestries that adorns my sister's room, my voice falling to a harsh whisper. "He knew you were the priestess that spent the night with me. He knew . . . He figured you no better than a whore, a slut that he could force because you had lost your virginity to your own brother." In fact, from what I know, in the eyes of the Church a whore would be above my beloved twin in purity . . .

I freeze in mid-step, a sheet of horror whipping over me. "He--no, he wouldn't have, Malaquin! He . . . he was a priest!" I feel so sick that it's a wonder I don't vomit on the spot. "I . . . I'm not a whore, I'm not . . . I would die before I let him touch me.

No--I'd have killed him first!"

"He would have. Goddess help me, I don't know how I knew, but I knew. I couldn't let that happen to you--"

My servant's knock sounds on the door, the three quick raps, the pause, then the fourth. "That was quick," I murmur, smiling slightly. Cathal's always been efficient.

"How--" I cut myself off. He just said that he didn't know how he'd known what was going through the man's mind.

I hurry to unlock the door and let Cathal in again, managing a smile for him.

My manservant gives my sister an answering smile as he steps inside, his arms full of my most favorite and comfortable clothes. Looks like he brought enough to spend a week out of my room. Leave it to Cathal to go overboard.

I smile at Cathal as well, directing him to set the clothing down on a table next to where I sit. I fall into a bit of a silence, not wanting to let Cathal overhear too much. I trust him very much, and he's a dear friend of mine, but there are some things better left between just my twin and myself.

"Do you think that will be enough, Highnesses?"

I look to Madule, awaiting her answer. I'm personally not sure how long I'll want to be here instead of my despoiled chambers.

I give Cathal a slow nod and a trembly smile. "Yes. Thank you, Cathal. I think we'll be all right now, but we'll call if we need anything."

What I really need right now is to be alone with my brother, to let his loving presence soothe the frightened cold in my heart.

I watch as Cathal looks from me to my sister, then back to me, a look of speculation on his face. Perhaps he knows enough to guess, but I'm not going to tell him. He's better off not knowing. "Shall I leave you be, then?" he asks.

I nod, the stray lock of my bangs slipping to rest in front of my face alongside my nose. "We'll be sure to call you or Elaine, Cathal. I promise."

He nods and turns, slipping out the door again.

I watch Madule, hoping she'll lock us in again. This time, I don't want anyone in here. They can beat on the door all they want. I don't feel safe at the moment.

I almost run to the door to lock it. I want to be safe here, in my own rooms.

Turning away from the door,I look over at Malaquin, my voice shaking. "Please, let's go into my dressing room. I want to get out of this gown and then cry for awhile, I think."

"As you wish, beloved," I respond, gracefully standing. I walk over to her and slip an arm around her waist, pulling her slim form against mine as I usher her into her dressing room. She seems so fragile, my brave, beautiful sister. "I'm right here with you."

I don't think Malaquin's ever seen my dressing room, with its frilly, feminine trappings, full of my clothes, jewels, perfumes. The moment we're inside, I turn my back to him, gathering up handfuls of my long hair and pulling it over my shoulders. My voice sounds so small, so little-girl-like. "Please, Malaquin, unlace my gown?"

I step up to her and gently run my hands over her back, giving her what I hope is a soothing caress before I start to untie her elegant gown's lacings. "Of course, my beloved. Just give me a moment or two to worry with this."

Once again, I'm well aware of her as a woman there before me, the soft feel of her under my hands. How I love her . . .

I sigh softly, contentedly, at that gentle caress, then stand still for him to help undress me. The mere thought alone makes me feel hot, flushed; he's going to see me naked. True, he saw that once already--in the cave--but the light wasn't very good then. Here, with the golden glow of candlelight around us, he's sure to get a better view.

I sense her sick apprehension slowly drop away, replaced by an excited anticipation, and I know pretty much what is causing it.

This time, we truly will cross the point of no return. Even the ones that follow the old ways would forgive us the feis but not this. I don't care what others might think. We need one another. We can't live without one another. I love her too much to let anyone else have her, even in this manner.

My hands caress her, eager to feel her skin under her clothing as we ease her gorgeous gown from her willowy form. My breath catches in my throat as more and more of her is revealed to me. I know what she looks like, thanks to the day in the forest and the dim light of the cave. But this time, there are no secrets between us, no deceptions. Just Madule and myself.

When the last garment is removed, neatly set on its hanger, I stand there wearing nothing but the necklace and earrings of my mother and the shimmering coronet of the prince's bride. I lift that gently from my head and nestle it into its velvet-lined case, latching it securely; then I slowly remove the earrings and necklace, putting them into their place of honor in my jewelry case.

Smiling at Malaquin--feeling so glorious in the candlelight with his gaze on my body--I touch the elaborate braiding of my hair. "Can you help with this, too?"

"Of course." The words are a soft whisper as a thrill of anticipation runs through me. I step close to her, breathe in her intoxicating scent as my fingertips caress her silken hair, discovering through touch the pins and bands used to create that work of art that was the crowning touch of my sister's look for court. "You looked every inch the princess," I softly murmur to her, gently working loose one little plait after another. "I was so proud of you."

A little at a time, her raven tresses come free, and I comb through them with my fingers as they do. It's far easier and nicer to concentrate on this than the horror just past, though part of me still marvels at that display of emerald magic I had somehow managed. I knew there were mystic powers that went with being the true, anointed prince, but that was one unexpected.

I feel Madule's heat near me. She's so soft and inviting. How could I ever let her go to someone else. How could I not? It would be best for her, to avoid any possible shame. It's already caused some trouble, though how much I don't know just yet. We'll always be burdened with this shameful secret if we continue . . .

I purr softly as his deft fingers work on freeing my silky hair, letting it tumble loose in raven cascades. He's naked to the waist; I'm completely nude, bare as a forest nymph, dressed in nothing now but my own long hair, and I'm acutely aware of his body and my own.

"And you were such a handsome prince," I murmur in return, tilting my head back against his hands. "I was happier than any woman in the room, looking upon you and knowing that I have you in ways they never will."

"Am I doing what's right for the land? For you?" I can't help it. The words of the clerics ring in my ears and the knowledge that the abbot had presumed to think my sister was now an approved target for something like what he had in mind sits like a lead weight in my belly. "Madule, beloved . . . Maybe I shouldn't've lashed out at the Church so swiftly. What if someone else comes to try to hurt you?"

Even as I speak and wonder if perhaps I shouldn't step away from this, from her, after all, my hands continue to stroke through her hair.

I don't want to leave. I should leave . . .

I feel the last lock of my hair come free from the plaits, and reach up and back to gently take Malaquin's hands. Turning, I look up into his eyes, smiling softly. "They won't be able to hurt me, Malaquin. I have the bravest, strongest, most wonderful prince to protect me."

I kiss his palms softly, lingeringly. I can sense his disquiet, and it hurts me--like soft pinches in my soul.

My eyes close at her butterfly-light kisses on my hands, and the leaden feeling within me intensifies, but for other reasons than why it was there in the first place. "I'm honored you have such faith in me, dear sister. I . . . hope I won't end up failing you."

I take a deep breath and look up, my emerald gaze taking in the room in which we're standing. "Maybe . . . we should make ourselves comfortable?" I suggest to her, my heart still torn in two.

"You could never fail me, Malaquin. Never." I mean every word; he is the only man in the world who is perfect to me.

I nod, smiling up at him, then slip my hands from his to work the fastenings of his belt. "Don't move," I whisper almost pleadingly, turning my gaze down to my task. "Just let me . . ."

I want to do this--to strip him as he had stripped me, to let my hands learn the lines and planes of him, as his hands took lessons in the curves and details of me.

Oh, Goddess . . . I shouldn't let her do this, but I want her to. I want to run her hands over me.

"All right," I hear myself agree as I spread my feet apart to better brace myself and make her task easier. After all, it's only fair for her to gaze upon me as I have been gazing upon her.

I loosen his belt, then kneel down to peel the snug black hose and dark green half-boots from his legs. I just can't ignore the sight of his manhood, this close to me; it's fascinating, so different from my own body.

Finishing with the little job, I straighten--slowly, keeping my hands on the outsides of his thighs, drawing my fingers slowly up over the tight muscle and sleek skin as I stand, then laying my palms against his chest. "You're so magnificent, my beloved brother," I whisper reverently, gazing up at him.

I shiver at her caresses, my body having quite the noticable reaction to her and her touch. As she kneels in front of me, I reach down and lightly touch her hair, a part of me craving even more of her touch.

I smile at her whispered words, reaching up to rest my hands over where hers press against the smooth skin of my chest. "And you are so beautiful. The most beautiful woman I've ever seen."

I move closer, enough to press myself lightly against his front, feeling his hardened shaft against my belly. I smile back at him, stroking his chest lightly. "Am I, Malaquin?" My voice grows breathless as I stare up at him. "Am I the most desirable woman you've ever seen, too?"

"Yes . . ." I can't lie to her, not about something like this, not especially with the two of us bare to one another and pressed together.

I lift my hands to gently cradle her head, one palm pressed to each cheek as I continue to stare down at her. "I love you, beloved sister."

I smile happily up at him, basking in the warmth of his affection and desire . . . but then I shiver, feeling a chill underlying that delicious heat.

"What's wrong, Malaquin?" I'm embarrassed at how weak and thin my voice sounds suddenly. I know something is wrong, and he's not telling me what it is.

"I want to do what's right, Madule. Surely you can understand that." I look at her beseechingly, then take one of her hands in mine, raising it to my lips to kiss the knuckles where her fingers curl over mine. My other hand rests on her cheek, my thumb gently caressing the soft skin.

"We've . . . done nothing yet that can't be forgiven. But . . ." my voice trails off, but I can't stop staring at her.

"Yes, I understand . . ." I watch him lift my hand, his lips touching my fingers gently. The stroke of his thumb against my cheek feels so good.

I feel a sudden twist in my belly at his soft words, then look up at him desperately. "But what, Malaquin?"

"If we continue like this, then we will cross that line. Madule . . . Is it worth it? Is it worth the secret we'll have to keep? The shame if it gets out? Madule, should we even think like this?"

A wild surge of emotions boils up in me. Anger, hurt, love, fear, shame--I feel like I might shatter from the sudden rush. Letting go of Malaquin, I take a step back, knowing that my feelings are very much apparent to him through our bond, and written clearly on my face.

Anguish makes my voice tremble when I answer. "Do you think I'm not worth it after all? Do you really think that we're doing wrong, when the Mother has given Her blessing in no uncertain ways?"

She suddenly seems so fragile, like spun glass that could break into a million pieces with the slightest touch. Ah, Madule . . . I didn't mean to hurt you with my words . . .

"You're worth everything to me, beloved. I gave you crown and throne, because I want you there at my side. No one else, just you."

I look her over, and the memory of the other night comes back to me, of her sounds that she wanted me to hear.

I have to turn away from him, my eyes aching with threatened tears. Pushing open the door, I walk slowly into my bedroom, where only the silvered glow of the moon lights the familiar chamber.

"Then why are you questioning this now, Malaquin? You gave me such beautiful gifts today . . . now are you saying that you're not sure you should have done it?"

"Of course not," I swiftly answer. I hesitate following her at first, but then trail along behind her as she walks slowly into her bedroom.

I've not been in there before, I realize.

"You deserve them, Madule. I want you to rule with me. It's always been the two of us against everyone. Is it worth it to you?"

I know that he'll find my bedroom different--frilly, girlish, adorned in rich jewel tones. My bed, of pale, silvery wood, is draped and covered in white satin, with deep green silken sheets. Thick rugs cover almost every inch of the cool stone floor.

I sink down onto the edge of my bed, in a puddle of shimmering moonlight through one window, and look up at my beloved twin. "It's more than worth it, Malaquin. I want to always be with you, in every way . . ." My gaze drops away from his, my voice fading somewhat. "But if you've changed your mind . . ."

This is where . . . The memory comes back to me, haunting me, as it had before . . .

I let my gaze wander over her body, the light of the moon adding a magical touch to her visage. "Do you want me that badly?" my voice is a whisper made harsh with desire; just seeing her there in the moonlight made my passions flare even more. "Bad enough to face anything? Bad enough to face more like the abbot a while ago?"

I lift my arms, holding them out to him almost pleadingly. "Yes, my love. I would endure anything to be with you, so that we can complete each other, forever keep that promise we made when we were only children. I want you more than I've ever wanted anything . . ."

I smile at her, the last of my doubts fading away for the moment. Together then, now and forever, against anything. We just need to face things as they come . . .

I step forward, closing the distance, wrapping my arms around her. My lips find hers in a heated kiss--Goddess, how I need her!--and I use my weight to gently push her down to the bed to lie beneath me. My heart pounds in my chest as I deepen the kiss, never wanting to let her go.

Chapter Three silver rose bullet Chapter Five

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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