His fingers throbbed, but he pressed them harder against the strings, coaxing trembling notes into the room. Darshon kept his eyes closed, listening to the music bounce off the stone walls onto the stone coffins that dotted the room.
His morning archery lesson in the courtyard had come to an abrupt end, when a chair flew through the window of the king’s study onto an unsuspecting servant hauling water below. Galephy’s shouts carried through the halls, sending a few servants rushing toward the room and the majority fleeing as fast as they could run. Darshon had run as well, all the way to the bottom story of the castle, to the only room where all the occupants were dead and harmless.
An hour had passed, and no one had found him yet. He ignored the stinging curiosity, wondering if he’d even been missed and concentrated on placing his fingers in just the right spots on the strings to calm his heart with his music. It didn’t sound like the musicians at the ball, or even quite as good as Ceslaya when she practiced with her tutor. But he’d taught himself, eavesdropping on her lessons and trying to replicate them on his stolen instrument.
He played until his wrists hurt, and his stomach complained. Returning the violin to its hiding place, he crept upstairs where the long halls now stood empty and cold. He lingered, listening for any sounds from the king’s study before he slipped past it, wondering if there was any breakfast left and wishing he had someone to scold.
The door to Galephy’s study swung open, releasing a sudden burst of cold air into the hallway. Darshon stumbled back as his father’s eyes settled on him.
Galephy’s hand clamped over his mouth, stifling his squeal.
“And here I thought you were brave.” Galephy’s voice slithered into his ear. “The only one brave enough to come see his poor distraught father, and then he calls for Mother.” Galephy shoved him into the middle of the room. “Did you think I was going to hurt you?”
Darshon clamped his mouth shut and forced himself to shake his head.
Galephy laugh lowly. “Of course you did. You’re like me. We don’t believe in trust.” He turned to slide the key into the lock. “We know better.” The king’s jaw clenched as he paced through the room. “You cannot trust anyone but yourself. Not your family. Not your lords!” He fisted the broken seal of an envelope. He spun around with a smirk. “Nobody but yourself. And you don’t have much of a ‘self’ to trust, do you?”
Darshon clasped his hands together so that his father would not see them tremble. He swayed toward the door, then hesitated. His eyes darted toward the keyhole. “I’ll be late for lessons.”
“Oh.” Galephy glanced at the sun peeking into the splintered shutters of the window. “Yes. I suppose you will. We all know you cannot miss your schooling. And you certainly prefer Master Remarr’s company over mine.”
“I could stay.” Darshon backed up, trying to keep his voice as loud and clear, but it fell to a whisper of its own accord.
“No, no. I wouldn’t wish to keep you.” Galephy turned toward his desk. “We’re both busy, I’m sure.”
Darshon held his breath, watching his father sit. After a moment, the man glanced up. “What?”
“You—you locked the door.”
“Oh. So I did.” The icy blue eyes returned to the paper.
Darshon chewed his lower lip and eyed the spot where the missing chair had stood. When his father seemed to be concentrating on his work, he inched his way forward to the desk, searching for the keys.
Without looking up, Galephy patted his pocket. “You’ll have to ask for them.”
“M–may I have the keys, My King?” Darshon whispered.
Galephy looked up sharply. “What?”
“May I…have the keys?”
“Not if you ask like that.”
Something rushed up Darshon’s throat, and he swallowed it back down again. “Please, Father. Give me the keys.”
He stood, refusing to flinch as Galephy studied his face. Training his eyes onto the back wall, he heard his father’s keys rustling before they hovered in the corner of his eye.
He tentatively reached for them, feeling cold brass on colder flesh, but his fingers had no sooner wrapped around the key before Galephy’s other hand clamped around his wrist. His father slapped his outstretched hand, clattering the keys to the floor. Needles pricked his eyes as heat seared through his arm when Galephy slapped it again.
“Let me go!” Darshon whimpered, trying to jerk his hand away.
His father cuffed his ear until it rang. Darshon’s one coherent thought was that he might go deaf and never hear his music again. Each time he registered which place on his body was the source of the pain, Galephy moved to another spot. When his father released him, Darshon curled into a ball on the floor so there would be fewer places to hit. When he cried out, Galephy kicked his ribs.
“Quiet, boy! I’ll not have a coward for a son!” Galephy snapped. “Now get of my sight.”
“I don’t have keys!” Darshon wailed, fisting away rebellious tears.
“You don’t need keys. The door isn’t locked, you dunce.”
Wasn’t locked? Darshon glanced toward the door, then bolted, yanking it open. He stumbled up the stairs, slamming his own door so hard that something cracked. Crawling onto his bed, he buried his head in his pillow, gritting his teeth against the pain shooting through his chest.
His ragged pulse frightened him, but if he went to his mother, she would see the bruises. He rocked slowly, concentrating on returning his breathing to a normal pace. Then he examined every location of the darkening bruises before carefully searching the wardrobe for garments that would cover them.
“Not a child,” he mumbled as he tugged a sleeve over the finger marks on his wrist. “Stupid servant’s an idiot anyway.”
He faced the mirror, making sure there were no visible clues to his morning’s ordeal beyond two red eyes, swollen from tears. He bathed his face with cold water from the basin his servant had set out when the day began. It was harder to hide the limp and winces as he arrived at the schoolroom.
Remarr glanced up, offering a small smile, and set him to work without asking questions.
Everything was irritating.
Darshon blew out a bored breath, listening to Kael’s bewildered comments as Remarr reviewed things the other boys had already mastered. Tehveor sunned in the window like a content cat, reading a history book. Darshon studied its cover, testing himself to see how much of the book he could recall and found that he could still envision entire pages from the last time he read it.
When he bored of that, he drew a bird on the margin of his own book, wishing he knew how to fly, so he could fly from the tower window and spy on all of the peasants without anyone knowing he was a prince. He was almost happy again when Remarr spoiled his joy.
“Darshon, you’re not reading.”
“I’ve already read this one!”
“Then find one you haven’t read,” Remarr answered carefully. “And stop marking them up. Books are priceless.”
“The scribes draw pictures,” Darshon said. When Remarr ignored him, he heaved the biggest sigh he could manage, dragging his feet to the bookcase. He wondered if Remarr noticed his stiffness and guessed what had happened, or if the man was worried about losing his position because of Kael’s performance.
Darshon touched a book and cringed, hating the way he jumped to obey Remarr. After all, he held the third highest rank in the land. Remarr should be taking orders from him. His fingers lost their strength, letting the book tumble to the floor.
Remarr glanced over, but said nothing, as though he feared to break Kael’s concentration and fragile grasp on the numbers the boy was laboriously penning. Kael had to write his numbers on paper. He mixed them up if they stayed in his head where numbers were supposed to be.
Darshon put his tongue between his lips and pulled out another book, letting it thump to the floor. He glanced sideways toward Remarr to gauge his reaction, wondering why his teacher never hit him, but his own father beat him for nothing except being near enough to catch.
Kael glanced up, but Remarr only nodded at him to keep going without acknowledging Darshon. Darshon pouted until his eyes fell on a title of a book of sonnets. The poet had once sent Queen Margaret a poem so graphic that Galephy ordered him hung at once. Darshon had often wondered what a man could write about his mother to make his father so angry, but no one would satisfy his curiosity.
He had taken the book from the shelf once before, but he had not managed to read past the first page before Remarr confiscated it, giving him a sound scolding. His fingers tightened on it now, but, even before he had pulled it from the shelf, Remarr noticed and glared.
“Darshon. Leave it.”
“You said I could find one I hadn’t read.”
“I said you may find a history book. That’s not history.”
“The poet’s history.” He grinned.
Remarr’s eyebrows rose.
Darshon surrendered, stepping over to the section that held the proper historical books. He yanked another book, throwing it down to whack against the floor.
Kael jumped and pressed his fingers to his temples. “Darshon, stop it, please!”
“He’s going to pick them up,” Remarr replied calmly. “Keep on, My Prince.”
Kael’s eyes roved over his numbers.
“You were there.” Remarr pointed toward the end.
Kael blinked. “How did I get that?”
“Just start it again,” Remarr said.
Kael sighed and began to recopy the first line. He was halfway through when a servant opened the door. Kael lost his place again, glancing up miserably while the servant bowed toward the prince and teacher.
“Lady Setta requested that Tehveor be given his letter.”
Tehveor sprang up from the table. “From Father?”
The servant lowered his head in response as Tehveor pulled the paper from the man’s hand with a shy thanks.
Remarr redirected Kael once more as Tehveor returned to his window seat. Darshon slid in next to Tehveor to peer at the letter, but Tehveor just held it.
“Aren’t you going to read it?” Darshon asked. “I think it’ll say that he doesn’t like you.”
Tehveor flinched. The strange sliver eyes filled with doubt, just before Remarr shoved his chair back. Darshon panicked as his wrists were once again seized. Remarr steered him toward the door, and before Darshon quite knew what had happened, the door was closed and locked, leaving him standing alone in an empty hall. He folded his arms, irritated that he would never know what the letter said.
But it didn’t matter. He didn’t need to study. He was five times brighter than stupid old Kael, and no one would ever care what he thought anyway. Besides, he had won. Remarr was no longer telling him what to do, and he would not be forced to pick up the books. He chewed a fingernail, glancing down the hallway and wondering where his father was now. It was best not to stay in the main quarters without Remarr to act as a buffer.
He darted up the nearest stairs back to his bedroom and fished a box of coins from beneath his bed. Tucking it tightly beneath his arm, he strode through the hallway, imagining running away and spending all day in the village. Instead, he turned his steps up the stairs to the outer wall that touched the city streets. He peered into the street below, then fingered a coin loose from the box.
“One,” he whispered, and dropped it, watching the sunlight glint as it fell onto the street. Kael had created the game two years before. The crops had failed, and the peasants begged the king for food, which was refused. Kael was too afraid to approach his father to reconsider, so he had taken his own savings and dropped the coins into the streets below where the villagers could snatch them. Though Kael had moved on to helping in more direct ways, Darshon continued the tradition whenever he grew bored.
Far from being moved by compassion, Darshon loved to see the looks of annoyance when he managed to hit them with a coin. He had tried the game with other things; rotten vegetables and mice and whatever else he could find. It was fun to watch them splatter, but they made a mess and the peasants would not pick them up. He had continued with only the coins, knowing all evidence was carried off by people with tight fists and tighter lips.
Today he spied a boy below, and, after the first three coins fell, there were many boys gathered at the bottom of the wall, jostling each other like hens after their feed. When all eager faces were turned up toward him, Darshon held out another before he changed his mind. It wasn’t fun when people wanted things dropped on them.
He set his chin on the wall, contemplating what it would be like to walk in the town with a group of boys like that. He wondered if he could get close enough to speak to them, but before he could think of a way, the boys shouted, pointed, and fled.
Darshon squinted at the carriage that rolled through the front gate, spying a young face and a flash of golden hair in the window. Servants lined the pathway, and Darshon hobbled down the stairs as quickly as he could manage.
Ceslaya had already climbed from the carriage by the time he reached the courtyard. Darshon shifted onto the hip that hurt the least as Ceslaya greeted footmen and maids by name.
“Ceslaya!” Darshon called, tired of waiting for her to notice him.
She smiled and waved to him. As Setta stepped onto the walkway, Ceslaya dropped the basket she was holding and bounded toward her mother with a most unladylike squeal.
Setta wrapped her in a hug before glancing questioningly at Lord Torynn who stood near the carriage. The man shook his head. Her face clouded for just a moment, before she pulled Ceslaya back and smiled at her. “I’m glad you’re home.”
Darshon rocked on his toes, wishing someone would smile at him like that.
“Your brother’s here. Tehveor,” Setta said. “I want you to meet him.”
As Setta turned to call a servant to fetch Tehveor, Ceslaya’s face darkened.
“He’s not taking your place, Ceslaya,” Setta assured her. “He’s coming to live right along with you.”
Ceslaya still frowned, swinging her eyes to Darshon. He shrugged, then scrunched his nose, relieved that Ceslaya hadn’t taken an instant liking to Tehveor as everyone else had. They nearly reached the door when Tehveor rushed onto the steps with his letter in hand. He slowed as he approached the group.
“This is Tehveor.” Setta turned to Tehveor. “Tehveor, this is your sister, Ceslaya.”
“Hello,” Tehveor said.
Ceslaya sent Tehveor an absolutely black stare that startled even Darshon.
“Aren’t you going to say hello?” Setta encouraged softly.
Ceslaya shook her head. She gathered up her skirts with a most regal air and flounced past Tehveor into the hall.
Setta sighed and looked at Lord Torynn. “Did she make any progress at all?”
“I’m afraid not. She would scarcely speak for me there. We were just beginning to make progress when the news of Tehveor came and someone—who has been dealt with—said she could be the daughter of anyone, and the royal family wouldn’t keep her now.” He motioned toward the dark doorway. “She’s been like this ever since. I thought the best thing to do was to bring her home, so she could be reassured.”
“Yes. You are right.” Setta forced a smile. “It’ll turn out in the end, I’m sure.” She swept a hand toward him. “In the meantime, I’m afraid I have been very inhospitable. Come inside. I’ll give you food and drink.”
She passed Tehveor, stopping to kiss his head and whisper, “Give her time, darling.”
Tehveor stayed near the wall. His face twisted into a frown as Darshon walked in meandering circles around him.
“What’s wrong?” Darshon asked. “Was your letter nasty?””
“What’s the matter with Ceslaya?” Tehveor asked.
“She can’t talk,” Darshon said, tracing fingers lightly along the stone railings. “She mumbles like an animal, and no one can make her speak properly. She doesn’t like you.”
“I know.” Tehveor’s voice trembled.
“Well…” Darshon gave an exaggerated shrug. “You did take her place. Now everyone knows she’s an orphan and doesn’t really belong here.” Darshon continued, watching Tehveor chew his lip. “I wouldn’t fret over it. Without speaking properly, she never really had much of a chance to begin with.”
Tehveor’s mouth fell as he turned knitted eyebrows onto Darshon. “Why are you so mean?”
A servant snorted, but, by the time Darshon turned to see who it was, all faces looked solemnly forward. Before he could retaliate on Tehveor, the boy ran inside, leaving him alone in the courtyard.
The noon meal lasted much longer than normal as Lord Torynn shared news from his side of the country, while Setta gently tried to persuade Ceslaya to tell about her adventures. The girl ignored her, slitting her eyes at Tehveor. Darshon grinned until his father joined them, eyeing every movement he made. Kael’s eyelids drooped until he had to be reminded to eat.
Queen Margaret continued the conversation, asking Lord Torynn about his family, until Galephy’s fist slammed the table, rattling the plates.
Kael jumped, jerking his head up. “I’m sorry.” The prince rubbed at one eye, blinking rapidly.
“You cannot come to the table in such a state,” Galephy spat. He pointed toward the door. “Leave.”
“I’ll stay awake, Sire,” Kael pleaded.
“I said go.” Galephy’s eyes locked with his son’s.
Kael’s face reddened as his eyes flickered to his full plate, then Lord Torynn. His jaw trembled while everyone sat in uncomfortable silence. Then he hurried from the room, but not before Darshon caught sight of a glistening tear.