“You’d think if Shi’ar truly wanted this alliance, they’d send the right bridegroom,” Lady Clarisa K’Yer of Elhalyn grumbled to her husband. A thin-faced woman with dark eyes and a perpetually sour expression, she absently stroked the rich fineness of her dark emerald gown with almost sensual pleasure.

Lord Rafael K’Yer irritably glared at his wife. “It doesn’t matter,” he finally said. “You will receive whoever is sent and do it graciously.” He rose from his chair and walked somewhat unsteadily towards the massive front door of his castle.

“Why, of course,” Clarisa looked guilelessly at her husband. “I simply resent the indifference shown to Elaina.” Her long thin fingers twisted the folds of her gown.

Rafael snorted as he turned to stare at her. “I hoped you would have been a mother to her.”

“I tried,” Clarisa angrily defended herself as she also got to her feet. “It’s not my fault she never liked me.”

After a moment, Rafael waved her away. “I’ve always said Elaina was smarter than I,” he bitterly spat. “See to your preparations, wife.” Nearly broken by illness, he forced himself to stand upright as he gave his orders. “I will not be pleased if my guests are dishonored in any way!”

Clarisa bowed, her lowered head shadowing the contempt in her eyes.

“You shouldn’t speak to my mother like that,” Jaxon K’Yer spoke up from the corner.

“When I want your advice, boy, I’ll ask for it!” Rafael hissed the word “boy” coldly. “Until then, keep your mouth shut!” He angrily shook his head. “May the Gods help my people the day you take my place!”

“I don’t like this,” Jaxon whispered to his mother as they watched Rafael walk towards the ceremonial entrance of Elhalyn Hall. Having not yet seen eighteen winters, he feared his father as he feared no one else...except possibly his mother. Nervously, he ran both hands through his long pale red hair.

“It doesn’t matter,” Clarisa reassured him. “Elaina and her brat will soon be away from here.” She glanced at her son. “You will have no rivals when your father dies. Elaina, as wife of a youngest son will have no power to try and take what is rightfully yours. No one will.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Elaina K’Yer D’Van, soon to add Aramis to her name, quietly waited on the front steps of Elhalyn’s Hall to greet the riders being escorted through the city gates. She knew her husband-to-be was not among them. Christien Aramis was busy pursuing bandits in the mountains along the border with Green Hills. She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned.

Seeing her frown, Rafael forced a smile. “Angry because I tried to find you a new husband?” he asked. He stared with pride at his eldest child and once again felt the loss of his first wife and her wise counsel.

“Of course not,” Elaina smiled slightly. “But you should be inside. You haven’t recovered...”

“The day I cannot greet an honored guest at my door is the day I will join my ancestors,” Rafael firmly replied. “You women do nothing but want to coddle a man.”

“I think we want more than to coddle,” Elaina teased.

“I should hope so,” he laughed and toyed with a curl of her brown hair. “Christien is a good man. A little younger than you, but of good blood.” He suddenly frowned and released her curl. “You will be in a good home.”

Despite herself, Elaina looked over her shoulder at the castle. “This is my home,” she pointed out.

“Jaxon will rule after me,” Rafael said regretfully. “And he and Clarisa have never been your friends. For that, sweetheart, I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” Elaina assured him.

Rafael grunted. “Besides, Paolo will have other children around,” he smiled regretfully. “It’s not good he grows up alone.”

“I didn’t realize Christien had been married,” Elaina said neutrally.

“He hasn’t, although there have been offers,” Rafael grinned. “No, the children I spoke of belong to his older brothers, Rik and Artur.”

“There are four brothers, aren’t there?” Elaina watched as the riders slowed their approach to the Hall.

“Rik rules Shi’ar,” Rafael nodded. “Artur is his full brother. Stefan and Christien are half-brothers.” He chuckled in remembrance. “Old Andre married quite a few times. But only got four sons for all his efforts.”

“Only four?” Elaina murmured as the riders slowly halted a few yards away.

“Greetings, Rafael of Elhalyn,” Artur Aramis greeted with a smile.

“Greetings, Artur of Shi’ar,” Rafael grinned as he strode forward. “By the Gods, it’s good to see you again!”

Artur easily dismounted, casually brushing his dark blonde hair aside. He tried to hide his astonishment at Rafael’s appearance. His pale blue eyes carefully noted his friend’s shortness of breath and stripes of white in the man’s auburn hair. Rafael resembled a man of nearly sixty winters although that milestone wouldn’t be reached for another fifteen seasons. “And you, my friend,” he took Rafael’s hand.

Rafael saw the quick assessment in Artur’s eyes. A vain man at times, he resented the white in his hair almost as much as the illness within his body. “We will speak later,” he quietly promised. He looked at the younger man who joined them and widely smiled. “Stefan, you have the look of Old Andre.” He fondly looked up at the tall broad-shouldered young man.

Artur glanced affectionately at his younger half-brother. “And the temper,” he added.

Stefan’s black eyes sparkled as the wind ruffled his equally black hair. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” he bowed to Rafael, but grinned ruefully at his brother.

“As it was intended,” Rafael turned to motion Elaina forward. “My daughter, Elaina K’Yer D’Van.”

Stefan’s eyes widened in appreciation as he studied Elaina. “I knew Christien was an idiot when he agreed to postpone the wedding.” He bowed low over Elaina’s hand.

Elaina’s grey eyes twinkled. “Obviously your brother is more understanding and patient,” she teased lightly. “I couldn’t leave because of my father’s illness.”

“Understanding?” Stefan paused to think. “Perhaps. Patient? He must be.”

“Is he my new father?” a half-whispered voice broke in.

“Paolo!” Elaina withdrew her hand from Stefan’s grasp and whirled around. “I told you to wait inside!”

“My grandson, Paolo.” Rafael looked at the boy with a genuine smile that reached his dark eyes.

“I’m going to be your uncle.” Stefan looked down at the small boy. He studied Paolo’s fair hair and blue eyes and decided he must resemble his late father.

“You’re big.” Paolo’s head leaned all the way back on his shoulders as he looked up at Stefan.

“I can see a lot from up here,” Stefan laughed. He reached down and put the boy on his shoulders. “See? Now you’re taller than the others.”

“He doesn’t have any children of his own yet,” Artur explained to Elaina with a straight face.

“Who are you?” Paolo asked as he twisted to look behind him.

“This is Starra Kasedy,” Artur introduced the tall dark woman standing behind Stefan. “She’s commander of Lord Rik’s personal guard.”

Elaina quickly saw the obvious family resemblance between Starra and Stefan. Starra’s black eyes studied her briefly in return, then she bowed her head. “My lady,” she quietly greeted.

“Starra is responsible for guarding the ladies and children,” Stefan teased. He smiled broadly when she gave him a quick look with her eyes.

“You’re a warrior?” Paolo looked surprised.

“I train Lord Rik and Lord Artur’s children in fighting,” Starra corrected with a cold look at Stefan.

“They must be a lot older than me,” Paolo said sadly.

“A few years,” Starra admitted. “But not that much.”

“Really?” Paolo, still perched on Stefan’s shoulders, twisted around. “Mama, can I...”

“Not now, Paolo.” Elaina reached up to take her son. “Our guests have ridden far and would like to rest.”

“Oh,” Paolo looked disappointed. He looked back at Starra. “But we can talk later?”

“Paolo,” Elaina said reprovingly.

“Perhaps,” Starra answered, ignoring the smirks on the faces of Artur and Stefan. “If not, there will be time on the journey to Shi’ar.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

At Clarisa’s insistence, the evening meal had been long and ceremonial. Rafael had long ago bought a measure of domestic peace by allowing his wife to have the final say in how his castle was run. He’d seen the questioning look in Artur’s eyes as well as the amused look on Stefan’s face. It annoyed him that Starra’s thoughts were successfully hidden behind her dark eyes.

When it was finally over, Rafael had motioned for Artur to join him in his chambers. He settled in his chair sighing happily as he put his feet on the nearby table and sipped wine that Artur had poured from a jeweled decanter.

Artur glanced around the room. It was clearly evident that Rafael’s wife slept elsewhere. “You don’t look well,” he mentioned as he slowly sipped the wine.

Rafael looked up. “I’m not,” he said flatly. “And Clarissa’s healers don’t seem to know what’s wrong.”

“What do you think?” Artur asked bluntly.

Rafael smiled. “I’d almost forgotten what it’s like to speak openly. As far as my health is concerned, I can’t speak about it to Elaina.” He raised an eyebrow. “I hope Christien doesn’t think he’s getting a meek-willed wife.”

“I’m not certain Christien cares,” Artur shrugged. “You didn’t answer the question.”

“I want Elaina and Paolo away from here,” Rafael glanced away. “Jaxon will rule after me. I can’t change that now.” He slowly looked at Artur. “You, Rik and I have been friends for years. But I can’t say things will be the same after I’m dead.”

“How different?” Artur asked with a frown.

“Jaxon is ambitious,” Rafael hesitated. “There’s nothing in the Wastelands worth taking. He might look towards Green Hills.”

“Or Shi’ar?” Artur prodded.

Rafael looked troubled. “He’s my son, Artur,” he pointed out. “There are some things even I can’t say.”

Artur smiled thinly. “It wouldn’t bother me if he tried to take something from Green Hills.”

“I detest war!” Rafael burst out. He looked around wrathfully. “But there are those eager to follow Jaxon.” He forced himself to look at Artur. “Tell Rik to watch his borders carefully. I wouldn’t put it past Jaxon to forge an alliance with Green Hills.”

“Those raiders we’ve had problems with are coming from Green Hills.” Artur studied the wine in his cup.

“Exactly,” Rafael said heavily. He stared broodingly into the fire. “Which is why I want Elaina and Paolo away from here. It’ll break my heart, but...”

“They will be safe,” Artur promised solemnly.

“I know they will,” Rafael studied Artur. “From what I’ve heard Christien is a good man. Paolo needs a father.” He grinned suddenly. “He’s a charming little rascal who’s been his mother’s pet for too long.”

“That’s to be expected considering Brandor’s death.” Artur mentioned Elaina’s dead husband.

“I had such hopes with that match,” Rafael muttered.

Artur carefully kept his face neutral. “Men die in battle,” he pointed out.

“Which is another reason I hate war,” Rafael grumbled. “But enough of that.” He forced a smile. “Which of you will take Christien’s place tomorrow?”

Artur laughed. “Stefan, of course,” he grinned. “Like Rik and our father, he likes being the center of attention.” He hesitated. “He’s rash but not a fool.”

“And Starra?” Rafael prodded. “Why hasn’t Rik acknowledged her as Andre’s daughter?”

“Not for his lack of trying,” Artur said ruefully. “But she’s as stubborn as the rest of us. She actually told Rik her name was Starra Kasedy. It was the name she was born with and the name she would die with. If he didn’t like it, she would be happy to leave.”

Rafael roared with laughter. “I don’t imagine he liked that much,” he finally gasped.

“Rik never likes being thwarted,” Artur agreed with a grin. “But you know him. He believes what he can’t obtain one way can be obtained another. So he tried charm.”

“And charm didn’t work,” Rafael guessed.

“Then he tried family honor,” Artur continued with a nod. “That was a mistake.”

“She seems like a proud woman,” Rafael shook his head. “Rik should have known better.”

“Stefan didn’t hesitate to tell him that,” Artur agreed. “And while Stefan and Rik were screaming at each other, Gwyn quietly convinced Starra to stay.”

“How did she manage that?” Rafael asked.

“By pointing out that Rik is an idiot,” Artur laughed. “Starra agreed and that was the end of that.”

“I wish I could have met Gwyndolyn,” Rafael quietly nodded. “She sounds like a good woman. And a good wife to Rik.”

“The Gods know she’s taken those two hellions he and Arielle had in hand,” Artur referred to Rik’s first wife. “Mine, too, as a matter of fact.”

“You don’t intend to remarry?” Rafael curiously asked.

“Why?” Artur asked. “You have another daughter you want to marry off?” He chuckled at Rafael’s expression then his eyes darkened at the thought of his dead wife. “No, once was enough.”

“A mistake I was foolish to make,” Rafael said bitterly. He held up his hand when Artur started to speak. “No, it was a mistake. I wanted a son. I knew Elaina would not be able to rule. I was a fool not to have tried to make a strong marriage for her earlier. Instead I had to beget a son of my own blood! Had I been more wise, my friend, Elhalyn would be left in better hands.”

“I suppose I should say you’ll live for years,” Artur said after a few seconds.

“But you won’t,” Rafael smiled. “I imagine your bluntness aggravates Rik sometimes.”

“Most times,” Artur corrected him. “I could send for some of our healers,” he offered.

“No,” Rafael shook his head. “Jamie Lorcan was kind enough to send two of his. Very quietly, I assure you. No one knew who they were.” He met Artur’s eyes. “The poison had done its job too well even at that point.”

“You’re still Lord of Elhalyn,” Artur said angrily. “You can...”

“I have no proof,” Rafael said quietly. “Even if I suspect...even if I my heart tells me who’s responsible...there is no proof.”

“You’re an honorable man, Rafael,” Artur said after a moment. “Too honorable.”

Rafael nodded. “Perhaps, Artur.” He slowly rose to his feet. “But a man has to be true to himself. All we leave behind are our children and our deeds. Either we live by what we believe in or we’re no better than the bandits, raiders, and renegades.”

“You sound like Christien,” Artur snorted. “He insists on being called a Ranger, you know. As though that old title means anything anymore.”

“You and Rik are the same,” Rafael smiled tiredly. “Stefan, too, I think. You stand by your words and deeds.”

“I think I’ll let Christien be called Ranger,” Artur decided. “I understand Lorcan’s heir is doing the same.”

“As is Rhyane’s heir,” Rafael nodded as he glanced out the window. “I think perhaps the title will mean more than we think in the years to come.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Three days later, Paolo sobbed as he clung to his grandfather. “I don’t want to go!” he cried.

Elaina bit her lip as she watched her father hug his grandson. “You will see him soon,” she assured him.

“Will not!” Paolo’s tear-filled blue eyes looked at her accusingly.

“Paolo.” Rafael turned the boy to look at him. “Is this any way for a warrior to act?” When Paolo sniffed and shook his head, Rafael forced a smile. “I was counting on you to be your mother’s protector on this journey. I’m beginning to think I’ll have to send your Uncle Jaxon to do the job.”

Paolo gave his uncle a look of hatred. “No,” he pouted. “Not him.” He looked back at his grandfather. “You.”

“You know that’s impossible, Paolo,” Rafael reproved. “Don’t you?” When the boy finally nodded, Rafael kissed him on the forehead. “Now show them you have the blood of warriors in your veins.”

Paolo clung to his grandfather for a moment. Elaina’s eyes filled with tears as she saw the sorrowful expression on her father’s face. Then the boy pulled away and ran to his mother. Elaina picked him up and turned to her horse.

“He can ride with me, my lady,” Starra spoke up. “Lord Paolo and I have not yet had our conversation.”

Paolo glanced at Elaina then held his arms out to Starra. Elaina smiled slightly as the tall woman easily put the boy on her horse. Then she turned to her father.

“I wish you could come with us,” she whispered as she hugged her father.

“This is for the best,” Rafael smiled as he kissed her cheek. “Christien Aramis is a good man.”

“So you keep telling me,” Elaina forced a smile.

Stefan stepped forward and helped Elaina onto her horse.

Artur stared at Clarisa and Jaxon who’d been standing to one side slightly smirking at the emotional leave-taking. He caught Jaxon’s eyes and brutally stared the younger man down. ‘Misbegotten whelp’, he angrily thought his fingers absently playing along the hilt of his dagger.

“The Gods bless you and yours, Artur of Shi’ar.” Rafael’s voice quietly interrupted his thoughts.and sadly smiled.

“Be well, Rafael of Elhalyn,” Artur formally replied as he mounted his horse.

Elaina smiled once more at her father then resolutely turned her horse to follow Stefan out the gate. Paolo turned to wave at his grandfather, his lower lip quivering. Artur waited until last before nodding to Rafael one last time. When he turned his horse, he caught the triumphant look passing between Clarisa and Jaxon.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Even during the warmest days, the temperature in the high mountains of Shi’ar remained cool as winds whipped around the snow-covered peaks. ‘The high mountains breed hardy stock’, Elaina thought wryly. Born and bred in the lower mountains, she was having some difficulty adjusting to the higher altitudes. Paolo, however, showed no signs of being affected...or slowing down.

Although the boy had been quiet the first couple of days, the excitement of traveling overtook him. He’d ridden with both Starra and Stefan for most of the trip, pestering both of them with a million questions. Stefan seemed delighted with Paolo although at times surprised at the questions he was asking. Starra pointed out that Paolo was, after all, past five years of age and not a baby. Paolo, overhearing this, puffed out his small chest and nodded in agreement.

Elaina decided to spend the days with Artur, grateful that Paolo was adjusting to the separation from his beloved grandfather. She glanced at the older man who seemed impervious to the long hours in the saddle. “I understand there are children at Shi’ar close to Paolo’s age,” she mentioned.

Artur slowly nodded. “Rik had twin children, Shiloh and Cheyne, about four years older than Paolo. His first wife died a few years after after their birth.” Artur didn’t mention Rik’s eldest son begotten on a woman even Rik barely remembered. The boy, just past twelve, had died years ago in a fall in the mountains. His body had never been recovered and best part of Rik had almost died then as well. “Rik remarried two years ago,” he continued. “He should have married Gwyn earlier than he did.” Here, Artur’s voice warmed.

“Then, of course, there are my offspring,” Artur’s voice range with amusement. “Trainor and Jaella are also twins. They’re a year younger than Rik’s children.”

“And your lady wife?” Elaina curiously prodded.

“Dead,” Artur curly replied. “Years ago. In childbirth.”

From the cold tone of his voice, Elaina surmised his marriage had not been a happy one. “What about Stefan?” She quickly changed the subject. “You mentioned he had no children.”

“No, Stefan and Devora have no children yet,” Artur nodded. “They’ve not been married a full season. When they’re not screaming at each other, they disappear into their tower.” He shook his head. “I’m a little surprised there’s no child on the way considering how they...” He caught himself seeing the amusement in Elaina’s eyes. “Stefan met Devora while he was traveling in the border country close to the Wastelands.”

Elaina saw the sudden frown on Artur’s face and decided to change the subject again. “You and Stefan don’t resemble each other. Who does Christien resemble?” she asked.

Artur smiled to himself at her too-obvious casual question. “Christien’s eyes are fair like mine and Rik’s. Rik and I inherited our blonde hair from our mother. Stefan is our father reborn. Christien’s hair was a light brown.” Artur shrugged again. “He mostly has his mother’s features.”

He glanced at Elaina as she digested this somewhat useless piece of information. What did it matter what a man looked like as long as he was an honorable man and good warrior? Elaina’s looks hadn’t mattered to Christien since he’d not asked once about them that Artur knew about. Although the youngest brother, he hadn’t been spoiled. Artur admitted Christien was hot-headed but that was to be expected after only seeing 20 winters. A stubborn man, but so were all the Aramis’ was a family disposition, Artur silently acknowledged.

“Mama! Mama!” Paolo shouted.

Elaina turned around and blanched as she saw her son with the reins of Stefan’s huge battle horse in his hands as the horse galloped towards them. Then she realized that Stefan was easily guiding the horse with his knees. Then the warrior grasped the reins and helped slow the horse as they rode up beside Artur and Elaina.

“Did you see me?” Paolo excitedly demanded. “Did you see me?”

“Yes, I saw.” Elaina hoped her voice sounded even. “I’m very proud of you.”

“Uncle Stefan said I could do it!” Paolo twisted his small body to look up at Stefan who grinned down at him

“We need to see about getting you a pony,” Stefan promised. “It’s time you learned to ride.”

Elaina’s eyes darkened. “I’m afraid I’ve kept him by my side too much,” she acknowledged.

Artur and Stefan exchanged glances. “Understandable,” Artur neutrally replied.

“Look, Mama!” Paolo pointed. “See! I wanted to show you first!”

Elaina looked her left where Paolo pointed. The tall silvery spires of Shi’ar’s castle rose majestically against the backdrop of the high mountains. Elaina openly gasped at their seeming delicacy.

“It’s not as close as it looks,” Artur warned him. “We still have a good three or four days’ ride at least.”

“That’s forever,” Paolo sighed dramatically.

“It’s taking a long time because we’re bringing everything you own,” Stefan laughed.

“I couldn’t leave my toys,” Paolo protested.

“Stefan is teasing.” Elaina patted her son’s arm. She turned to Artur. “Thank you for doing that. Father would have sent everything later.”

Artur, remembering his late night conversations with Rafael, simply nodded. “It’s one less matter he needs to attend to,” he brusquely replied. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the baggage horses catching up and nudged his horse forward.

“Will my new father be at Shi’ar when I get there?” Paolo wiggled on the saddle to stare up at Stefan.

Elaina, trying to catch up with Artur, didn’t hear the answer. But she wondered the same thing.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“It’s about time!” Rik Aramis exploded when he saw his youngest brother slowly lead riders through the gate.

Christien Aramis smiled wanly as he dismounted. “Yes, it’s good to be home,” he said with a quizzical look. “Yes, we rode hard all the way to Green Hills. No, we didn’t catch the raiders. Yes, I sent a message to Lord Axter about the raiders...again. No, no one was hurt but we’re all damned tired.” He looked at his brother. “Is there anything else you’d like to know?”

“Your bride will be here in well less than an hour,” Rik carefully enunciated. “How nice of you to make an appearance.”

Rik’s wife, Gwyn, put a hand on her husband’s arm. “You have time to bathe and dress,” she assured Christien.

“She’s here already?” Christien frowned slightly as he handed the reins of his horse to a groom.

“Already?” Rik’s blue eyes twinkled. “You’ve been married over a week! It’s about time she got here.”

Christien nodded curtly at his brother then smiled as he kissed Gwyn’s cheek. “Glad to see someone’s in a good humor,” he teased before walking across the yard.

Rik shook his head with a grin. “For someone who demanded, demanded mind you, that I arrange this marriage without delay, he’s awfully casual about it,” he mused.

“Perhaps he’s a little nervous,” Gwyn pointed out her dark blue eyes twinkling. “Like you were.”

“I wasn’t nervous,” Rik grinned as the sun shining on his greying blonde hair. “I was experiencing extreme anticipation.”

“Really?” Gwyn looked at him coolly. “I must have been looking at the wrong brother.” Before Rik could reply, she looked over her shoulder and shook her head. “I think I better see to the children.”

“Yes, I think you should,” Rik nodded trying to maintain some sort of dignity. When his wife turned, he grinned widely. He turned his face to the brisk breeze and walked lightly to join his wife.

“I assure you, Jaella, that purple and green do not look well together,” Gwen was carefully explaining. “Especially those shades of purple and green.”

Rik grinned at his niece. Both Artur’s children took after their grandfather, Andre, with their dark hair and eyes. But while Trainor was quiet, Jaella had inherited the Aramis temper.

“I like it!” Jaella twirled. “Don’t you, Uncle Rik?”

Rik smoothed his face as he studied the girl. “Actually, that’s more of a dress I’d expect you to wear to a party,” he decided with a judicious nod. “Your new aunt will be wearing traveling clothes. You wouldn’t want to outshine her, would you?”

Jaella glanced down at her dress and over-cloak. “I suppose not,” she decided. “I’ll go change.” She turned to go quickly followed by her cousin, Cheyne.

“Father, you won’t let her wear that to any party, will you?” Shiloh whispered.

Rik grinned at his son and ruffled his dark hair. “You and Trainor look very nice,” he pointed out.

“We want our new aunt to like us,” Trainor spoke up.

Rik’s heart caught as it sometimes did when Trainor looked at him. He smiled gently patting the boy’s shoulder. Rik knew Artur had named his son in honor of the one Rik had lost in the mountains. Yet there were times he looked at his nephew and saw his dead son. “I’m sure she will,” he finally said.

“By the Goddess, I think they’re here!” Gwyn jumped brushing back her tendrils of her dark red hair. She nervously tucked one curl behind her ear and smoothed her gown.

“Get your sisters,” Rik ordered the boys. He started to join Gwyn then shouted over his shoulder. “And Christien!”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Elaina’s first look at the castle of Shi’ar caused her to gasp. Even close up, the spires looked like delicately woven lace. Each of the four towers were linked by walkways that looked no more substantial than the towers themselves.

“Welcome to Shi’ar, Lady Elaina!” Rik’s booming voice brought her out of her reverie. She smiled as he helped her dismount.

“Lord Rik,” Elaina murmured as she curtseyed.

“Brother, Elaina,” Rik grinned. “Not Lord.”

Elaina smiled at Rik’s infectious grin. “May I present my son?” She turned as Starra lifted Paolo from her horse.

Artur and Stefan smothered grins as the boy carefully and deliberately walked forward. “I am Paolo D’Van,” he announced.

“Good for you,” Rik grinned kneeling in front of him. “But can I just call you Paolo? It’s a lot simpler. And you can call me Uncle Rik.”

Paolo’s cheeks dimpled as he smiled. He looked up at his mother. “I like my new uncles,” he announced. “A lot more than Uncle Jax.”

“Hush, Paolo!” Elaina quickly remonstrated. “Remember your manners!”

“I hope you will like me as well, Paolo,” Gwyn quickly spoke up although she looked at Elaina. “I’m your Aunt Gwyn.”

With childish dignity, Paolo took Gwyn’s hand and kissed it. Gwyn smiled at him then looked at her husband and his brothers. “I’m glad to see someone has manners,” she said pointedly.

Stefan laughed as Artur snorted.

“You should show your best manners with a lady,” Paolo said giving Gwyn an angelic look.

“I like him,” Rik grinned at Elaina. He turned as the boys came running up. “Paolo, these are your new cousins, Shiloh and Trainor.”

The two Aramis boys bowed to Elaina. “Welcome to Shi’ar,” Shiloh said.

“Thank you,” Elaina smiled. “I hope you and Paolo will be friends.”

The two boys considered Paolo. “Do you like girls?” Shiloh asked.

“No!” Paolo quickly shook his head.

Shiloh grinned at Trainor who nodded. “We’ll be friends,” he decided.

“Come inside,” Gwyn took Elaina’s arm. “You all must be tired and hungry. Christien got here just a short time ago.” She felt Elaina slightly stiffen next to her. “I’m sure you would all like to bathe before eating.” She looked firmly over her shoulder at both Artur and Stefan.

“Papa!” Jaella squealed with delight as she ran through the open castle door and across the courtyard. Ignoring everyone, she flung herself into her father’s arms.

Artur picked her up as she approached him on a dead run. Giving her a quick hug, he smiled. “Have you been giving your aunt and uncle problems?” he asked.

“I missed you, Papa.” Jaella hugged him.

“That means you have,” Artur sighed although his eyes twinkled. He set her down next to Cheyne. “Elaina, my daughter, Jaella, and Rik’s daughter, Cheyne.”

Both girls gave Elaina a quick curtsey then glanced at Paolo.

“My son, Paolo,” Elaina put a hand on her son’s shoulder.

“And he doesn’t like girls,” Trainor announced.

Both Cheyne and Jaella gave the three boys an even look then proceeded to ignore them.

“Jaella, what are you wearing?” Artur frowned as he now noticed his daughter’s dress.

“I was supposed to change,” Jaella defended herself. “But the boys said I had to come out now.”

“Did not,” Shiloh protested.

“Enough,” Gwyn said softly but firmly. “Rik, why don’t you have Elaina and Paolo’s baggage sent to their quarters? Boys, you can show Paolo to his room. Girls, you can escort Elaina to her quarters. I’ll have water sent up for bathing.”

“Where’s Devora?” Stefan looked around for his wife.

“Seeing to the evening meal,” Gwyn smiled. “But I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if you interrupted her.”

“I would,” Artur grumbled. “I’d like to be fed on time.”

Stefan grinned wickedly at his brother.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The Great Hall of Shi’ar’s castle reflected it’s long martial history. Weapons and trophies of war lined the stone walls. Wooden beams crisscrossed the ceiling giving the large open room a sense of security. A massive stone fireplace took up almost half of one wall. At the far end was a huge mahogany staircase. Standing on the landing was a young man dressed casually in dark green, his fists curling at his side.

Christien’s eyes narrowed as he watched the others enter the Great Hall. Unseen by the others, his eyes devoured Elaina. Then he saws Rik glance in his direction and forced his muscles to relax.

Rik grinned. He took Elaina’s hand and she followed Rik’s glance as he walked her forward. Christien slowly walked down the stairs, his blue eyes carefully neutral.

“Elaina, meet your husband,” Rik chuckled. “Christien, meet your bride.” He placed Elaina’s hands in his brother’s and grinned.

Elaina, startled by suddenly meeting her husband, dropped in a low curtsey. “My Lord,” she murmured.

The expression on Christien’s face never changed. “My Lady,” he formally replied as he gently raised her. “I hope your journey was pleasant.” His cool blue eyes flickered to his brothers. “I know it was a safe one.”

“Very much so.” Elaina calmly met his eyes. “I am indebted to them for their protection.”

Artur curiously glanced at Rik who shrugged. Stefan’s smile was slightly contemptuous.

“May I present my son, Paolo.” Elaina withdrew her hands from Christien’s and turned to reach for Paolo.

Paolo, suddenly shy, stepped back against Stefan, staring up at Christien with nervous eyes.

Christien stepped around Elaina and walked towards Stefan. A few steps away, he knelt down and studied the boy. “You look like your father,” he quietly said. “You don’t look like your mother or how I remember your grandfather.”

“That’s what Mama says,” Paolo said quietly. He looked up at Stefan for reassurance. When Stefan nodded, he looked back at Christien and took a deep breath. “Do I call you father now?”

Christien shrugged. “You father was a brave man. I respected him very much. Brandor D’Van will always be your father. Christien will do. We’re not very formal here.”

Paolo slowly smiled and slowly relaxed.

Gwyn caught Rik’s eyes and dared him to tease his brother.

“We’re going to show Paolo his room.” Trainor took his arm. “We’ll bring him back for dinner.”

“Thank you,” Elaina whispered to Christien as the children ran up the stairs, dodging around servants carrying baggage. “That was very kind.”

Christien shrugged. “Despite what my brothers may have told you, I can be kind,” he replied. When Elaina looked confused, he smiled slightly revealing a slightly chipped front tooth. “My brothers have, shall we say, a rather warped sense of humor at times. I wouldn’t have put it past either of them to...””

“Christien, at least allow Elaina a chance to bathe,” Gwyn softly interrupted. “She’s been traveling, too.”

Elaina saw Christien grin at Gwyn and marveled how his face changed. “Gwyn will tell you we’re all pretty much hopeless when it comes to manners,” Christien advised. He caught himself and stepped back. “Until later, my lady.”

“This way, Aunt Elaina.” Cheyne took her hand.

“Don’t worry,” Jaella whispered loudly. “Uncle Christien’s really a lot of fun.”

They all jumped when Stefan suddenly bellowed, “Woman! Where in the name of the Seven Rings are you?”

“Making arrangements for you to fill your stomach!” A woman shouted from the next room.

“That’s Aunt Devora.,” Cheyne identified as she led Elaina up the stairs.

“She and Uncle Stefan are fun, too,” Jaella grinned.

Stefan stalked into the next room. “Your place is to greet me when I return!” he shouted.

“Then you’d go hungry!” Devora retorted before there was a suspicious silence from the next room.

Artur sighed looking at Rik. “I suppose that means our evening meal will be late,” he grumbled.

“I’d say that’s a very real possibility,” Rik grinned. He clapped Christien on the shoulder. When the younger man looked at him in surprise, Rik leered. “Don’t imagine you’re very happy about it being delayed either?”

“That’s enough, Rik!” Gwyn snapped seeing the flush on Christien’s face. She gave him a warning look.

“How’s Rafael?” Rik quickly asked Artur.

“Dying,” Artur bluntly answered. He looked away from the startled looks of his brothers.

“Does Elaina know?” Gwyn finally asked.

“I’m not sure,” Artur shrugged. “She knows he’s not well. But I don’t think he told it’s mortal.” He started up the stairs after glancing at Gwyn. “I’ll tell you the whole story while I bathe, Rik.”

Gwyn sniffed. “I’ll just get the story from Rik later,” she tartly reminded him.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Christien stared out the window as his brothers discussed the deteriorating situation in Elhalyn. Several times Rik glanced at his youngest brother who seemed to be bored by the conversation. When Artur had finished his recitation of the talks he and Rafael had held, Rik looked around the room with ill-concealed distaste. Artur’s rooms could be called Spartan if one was generous enough.

As Artur tugged on his boots, he glanced at Christien. “Something more interesting out there than what we’re discussing?” he barked.

“I think his mind might be elsewhere,” Rik teased.

“Rafael’s dying of poison,” Christien coolly replied as he turned around. “He thinks it’s by his wife and son although he won’t admit it. He agreed to Elaina’s marriage in order to find a place where she and Paolo would be safe.” He shot a quick look at Artur. “Brandor D’Van was a good warrior. Does Rafael think his death was accidental?”

“I never did,” Artur shrugged. “I don’t know what Rafael thinks.”

“Brandor, as husband to Elaina, could have easily taken Elhalyn,” Rik mused. “If Clarisa and Jaxon were intent on seizing power, Brandor would have to be eliminated.” He shrugged. “Assassination during battle is probably the safest way. That could be why Rafael kept Paolo either with him or under Elaina’s eye. There might be those who would back Brandor’s son against Jaxon.”

“Rafael’s a good man,” Artur half-snarled. “He deserves better.”

Rik nodded obviously considering the possibilities, then glanced at Christien. “Until Jaxon begets an heir, Paolo is next in line.”

Christien crossed his arms over his chest and studed his brother. “You expect me to undermine Jaxon?” he carefully asked.

Rik grinned. “Just pointed out a possibility, that’s all.”

Artur snorted. “Rafael thinks Jaxon might make an alliance with Green Hills,” he pointed out. “If he does, we’ll have enough to worry about.”

“All the more to remember Paolo’s bloodline,” Rik pointed out. His eyes hardened as he looked at his brothers. “Rafael is my friend. I don’t forget my friends.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Artur glanced around the dining hall. “I knew this meal would be late,” he muttered.

“Stefan and Devora are on their way,” Gwyn assured him with a smile as she handed him a goblet of wine. “I sent the boys to get Elaina and the girls.”

Artur drank the wine and grunted. “Tomorrow’s going to be hell of a day,” he muttered. “I assume all the locals are here for the ceremony.”

“Of course,” Rik grinned. He saw Christien glance away and threw an arm around his shoulders. “A proper wedding with both the bride and groom in attendance. Witnessed by all of Shi’ar.” He waved his left hand in front of them as though conjuring the spectacle.

Christien glanced at Gwyn. “I don’t suppose there’s anything you can do with him?” he asked.

“I’m trying,” Gwyn assured him with a smile. “Rik, leave Christien alone.”

“Just offering brotherly support,” Rik grinned. He was spared Christien’s reply as Stefan and Devora entered the room closely followed by the boys.

“Papa, can Paolo stay in the playroom with us tonight?” Shiloh asked.

“I don’t know,” Rik smiled at the three pair of pleading eyes staring up at him. “What about the girls?”

“Do we have to invite them?” Trainor asked plaintively.

“Yes,” Gwyn spoke up. “You know that’s the rule.” She gave Rik a stern look. “Besides, with all the ceremonies tomorrow, none of you need to be staying up late in the playroom.”

“We’ll go to sleep,” Shiloh looked at Trainor and Paolo. “We promise.”

“You need to ask your Aunt Elaina if Paolo can stay with you,” Rik decided. He looked blandly at Gwyn. “They promised to go to sleep.” He grinned at her frown then glanced at Christien who had stiffened next to him.

Christien was staring across the room where Elaina hesitantly stood with Jaella and Cheyne at her side. His jaw clenched as he slowly walked forward.

“Isn’t she beautiful, Uncle Christien?” Cheyne grinned up at her uncle. “I just love this shade of yellow.” She gently stroked a fold of Elaina’s gown.

Christien smiled at his niece then looked at Elaina. “The boys want to know if they can invite Paolo to stay in the playroom tonight with them.”

“What about us?” Jaella demanded with a frown.

Christien grinned. “You need to ask Gwyn,” he advised. “But the boys have already promised to go right to sleep. Tomorrow’s a big day.” He watched as the girls ran to Gwyn pleading to stay in the playroom.

“The playroom?” Elaina asked.

Christien turned to face her. “A large room upstairs,” he explained. “The children have all their toys in there. It’s their...domain. Sometimes they sleep there.” He grinned slightly. “It’s Gwyn’s rule that neither the boys nor the girls can use it overnight without inviting the others.”

“That seems fair.” Elaina absently stroked her gown.

“Oh, you’ll find that Gwyn is extremely fair.” Christien offered his arm. “But Rik said they needed to ask you if Paolo could stay with them.”

Elaina placed her hand on Christien’s arm as they walked towards the table. “Of course he can stay,” she nodded. “I’m glad he and the others are getting along so well so soon.”

“Elaina!” Stefan boomed from the staircase. “May I present my beloved, the light of my life, the reason for my very existence...”

“I’m Devora,” the tall blonde woman squeezed Elaina’s hand She smiled at her husband. “He’ll go on like that all night unless he’s fed.”

Elaina tried not to stare at Devora transfixed by her brilliant blonde beauty. She felt a little uncomfortable next to the woman’s smoldering sensuality and found herself almost relieved when Christien led her to the high table.

Devora smacked Stefan on the arm when he smirked when Christien formally seated Elaina at the table. He made a show of rubbing his arm grimacing in pain.

Gwyn looked surprised to see Paolo standing behind her chair. “My Lady,” he bowed as she sat down. He tried to push her chair under the table then frowned when it refused to move. He pushed again then smiled as Rik helped him. The other children watched in amazement when he stopped behind Devora’s chair.

“Thank you, Paolo.” Devora gave him a dazzling smile as she helped scoot her chair under the table.

Elaina looked at the smaller table where the children sat and began to eat.

“Gwyn’s idea,” Artur explained. “It’s amazing how much quieter this table is with them over there.”

“Paolo is very mannerly,” Gwyn spoke up as the servants began serving food.

“Lady Clarisa insisted upon formality,” Elaina explained coolly. “Especially during meals.”

“Well, we’re more informal when it’s just family,” Rik grinned.

“I rather like it.” Devora tossed her head.

“You would,” Stefan grunted as he began eating.

Rik noticed that both Christien and Elaina played with their food. “You know, Elaina, Rafael, Artur and I have had quite a few adventures in our time.” He ignored the warning glint in Artur’s eyes. “In fact, that’s how your parents met.” He suddenly grinned. “You know, I could have been your father.”

“Only if Rafael had dropped dead and Allanna had gone blind,” Artur interrupted.

Rik airily waved his hand in dismissal of his brother’s comment as Elaina smiled at him.

“I think I’d like to hear this story myself.” Gwyn stared at her husband.

“Well,” Rik paused. “It was a long time ago,” he hedged. “But, enough of the past,” he decided. “Aren’t the children behaving well tonight?”

After the meal, the children approached Elaina’s chair. “Mama, may I stay in the playroom tonight?” Paolo asked.

Elaina studied her son and realized he was probably nervous about his first night in Shi’ar...alone in a strange room.

“We’ve promised Aunt Gwyn we’ll go right to sleep,” Trainor added.

“Then, of course, you can,” Elaina smiled. “Just remember you have a part to play in tomorrow’s ceremony, Paolo.”

Paolo flashed a wide smile. “Thank you, Mama,” he gave her a hug. He hesitated then bowed to Christien. “Good-night, sir.”

“Good-night, Paolo,” Christien replied solemnly. His eyes twinkled as he watched Paolo go to each adult and wish them a good-night as well.

“Come on!” Cheyne hissed impatiently tugging on Paolo’s arm. They slowly walked from the dining hall then ran across the front hall and up the stairs.

“Sounds like five wild horses.” Artur grimaced at the noise.

Christien slowly stood. “If you’ll excuse me, my lady,” he said to Elaina. “I’ll make sure they’re settled in, Gwyn.”

Elaina flushed slightly as she nodded. Gwyn and Devora exchanged quick looks. “Elaina, why don’t we help you unpack some more this evening?” Gwyn suggested.

“Thank you,” Elaina gratefully answered.

Artur waited until they’d left before looking at his brothers. “What in the name of Anhur has gotten into Christien?” he asked in exasperation. “He pushed you hard enough to make this marriage, Rik.”

“Too bad he didn’t know how easy it was,” Stefan chuckled.

Rik leaned back and sipped his wine. “Poor Christien,” he smiled. “All his dreams...all his ideals.” He grinned broadly at his brothers. “Our little brother who calls himself a Ranger is now having reality invade his illusions. Instead of a dream bride, he now has one who is flesh and blood.”

“He’s an idiot,” Artur stood and stretched. “I’m going to bed.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Christien’s an idiot,” Devora said with a casual wave of her hand an hour later.

“Devora,” Gwyn said warningly.

“Well, he is,” Devora sniffed. She looked at Elaina. “But then all the Aramis men are idiots.”

Elaina glanced from Devora to Gwyn who was trying hard not to laugh. She finally smiled. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Gwyn looked around. “I don’t know why they put everything in this side room,” she decided. “But at least it’s out of the bedroom and sitting room.” She glanced at Elaina. “Can we help you with anything else?”

“No,” Elaina said quickly. “I’ll be fine. Thank you.” She reluctantly watched the other two women leave.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Christien leaned against the wall with a grin. The children were literally throwing toys right and left to make room for their sleeping robes.

“Paolo can sleep between us,” Shiloh announced indicating Trainor.

“He can sleep between us.” Jaella slid Paolo’s sleeping robe between her’s and Cheyne’s.

“He’s one of us.” Trainor slid the robe back between his and Shiloh’s.

Jaella’s dark eyes snapped as she angrily threw her shoe at her brother. Used to her displays of temper, Trainor easily ducked the missile.

“I said, he’s sleeping between us!” Jaella shouted.

Paolo sat on the floor to one side watching the argument with a confused look on his face. He glanced up at Christien who winked at him.

Cheyne pulled Paolo’s sleeping robe to the middle of the room. “Paolo’s here,” she decided. “Jaella, you’re here.” She put Jaella’s robe next to Paolo’s. “Shiloh, you’re here.” She put Shiloh’s robe on Paolo’s other side. “I’m next to Jaella and Trainor is next to Shiloh.”

Trainor and Shiloh looked at each other then shrugged.

“Everything settled now?” Christien finally asked trying not to laugh.

“Yes, Uncle Christien,” Cheyne said decorously.

“Good, because you promised you’d go right to sleep,” Christien reminded them. “And Paolo has a big day tomorrow.” He saw Paolo frown slightly. “You’ll do just fine,” he assured the boy. He closed the door behind him ignoring the sound of voices coming from the room.

Christien walked down the corridor to his tower, frowning slightly as he saw Gwyn and Devora leaving his chamber. He waited until they had disappeared down the corridors to their own towers before stopping outside his door.

Quietly entering, he saw candlelight from his bedroom...their bedroom Christien silently corrected himself. Looking through the half-open door, he saw Elaina pulling a shimmering pale nightgown over her head.

Christien quickly turned away breathing hard. Slowly he walked over to his chair by the window and wearily sat down. He leaned his head back and automatically drew the fur robes around him.

Elaina lay curled up in the bed watching the candles burn lower and lower. Finally, she rose from the bed pulling a fur robe around her. She shivered slightly as she walked to the sitting room. She was almost to the door when she heard the sound of someone gently snoring.

Elaina turned around and walked towards the window. She smiled suddenly as she saw Christien sound asleep in the chair. She studied him for a moment surprised at how different he looked when asleep. Hesitantly, she placed a hand on his shoulder.

Christien’s eyes flew open at the touch his hand automatically reaching for the sword that wasn’t there. For a second he looked confused, then he quickly sat up. A quick glance at the fireplace told him he’d been asleep for probably an hour. “My apologies, my lady,” he mumbled. “I didn’t want to disturb you while you were dressing.” He shook his head irritably.

“Gwyn said you’d ridden a great distance today,” Elaina stepped back slightly. “It’s no wonder you’re tired.”

Christien glanced at her then nodded slightly. “I hadn’t realized how tired,” he slowly admitted. “With your permission, my lady, I’ll sleep out here. We both need our rest for tomorrow.”

Elaina glanced doubtfully at the chair. “There’s no need for your to sleep here,” she said. “As you pointed out, we both need our rest. I’m sure we can both sleep in the bed.” She turned around missing Christien’s frown.

“Very well,” he nodded slowly following her to the bedroom.

Elaina draped the fur robe over a chair and quickly slid into the bed. Christien sat on the far side of the bed and carefully removed his boots. Not bothering to undress, he also slid under the furs. He reached over to blow out the candle. After a moment, he quietly asked, “Are you warm enough? I can get more furs.”

“Thank you, no, I’m fine,” Elaina replied calmly. She heard Christien try to stifle a yawn and turned on her side away from him.

Acutely aware of her movements, Christien slowly turned his head to stare at her. Clenching his jaw, he resolutely turned away from her and closed his eyes.


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