I've never felt so worried in my life. I shift constantly, restless in my seat. With each movement my sword slaps my leg or clangs loudly against my chair. I can't decide which I hate more, the ache in my leg or the piercing noise which sets my teeth on edge. I bet I have a huge bruise on my leg, blossoming into rainbow shades. There may even be a dent in my chair.

My brother's worried too. He's thrumming with it. I watch him, squirming in his seat, fingers drumming on his knees, eyes shifting about the room fretfully.

It's silly.

I've never been afraid of heights. Together we've flown higher than the mountains in the shape of winged horses.

The sea'll never scare me. We've dove to the depths of the ocean in the shape of mermen.

Illness happens to other people. I've never been sick.

Who can fear Death? Not me. My brother and I have sat at Death's feet in his own domain. He feeds us and strokes our hair, smiling at us fondly. We call him Uncle and love him dearly.

All before we were out of our first level of school.

Love? Both of us have loved. We've also lost that love - Quickly I crush these thoughts before my brother picks them up. He's obviously upset enough without bringing up memories of That Person.

If we are immune to the greatest of fears, if we've experienced and seen more than most twice our age, what else is left to cause us such worry?

I turn in my seat, to see my brother sitting next to me, hoping these thoughts have eased his mind better than they have calmed mine. Still he fidgets, eyes wide and full of wordless fears. I hold his hand to sooth him and the word ‘ghost' breathes itself softly into my mind.

* * *

I raise a hand, shielding my eyes from the sun streaming through the giant windows. Lowering my eyes, I watch the light dance across the tiled floor. As a child I thought they looked like a huge collection of jewels, melted down and painted upon the floor. Watching the light flicker across the patterns I remember sneaking into this room with my brother and sitting in the very centre of the room on the blank white tiles, listening to my brother as he told me everything about the story the tiles created. Puck's Triumph Over Queen Hippolyta. The Sinking of Atlantis. The Recovery of Lord Oberon's Mirror. I remember each story perfectly and turning with my brother whenever he finished telling the part of the story that particular area of the floor told. Then rolling on our backs, lying together and thrilling over the story on the ceiling, which was full of a suitable amount of blood, fighting, fire, and gore for any small boy's delight. I'd shiver in delighted terror as my brother recounted the story of how the Dragon of Doom was destroyed by Simba-Alcazar. Our Granda. I know now that both were expensive gifts from people to the two former kings in the hopes of swaying their opinions on some controversial matter, or maybe even a petty little argument. It says a lot to me that the recipients had the gifts placed in this room. The war chamber. In my memory the only people who've ever entered it were my brother and I and the maids who would throw us out on our ears for being in a forbidden part of the palace that they were expected to clean out despite it's lack of use. Somehow all this practical knowledge doesn't take away the marvel of it all. The brilliant imagery soothes my mind, bringing thoughts of happy times with it as I lean back in my chair, resting my head comfortably while my sword hits my knee again. It doesn't seem to make anyone else in the room very happy. They're all too preoccupied with brooding in their own worries to pay attention to the splendour that surrounds us.

Pretty stupid of them, although I know none of them are anything like stupid at all.

Furthest from me is a man who's height I could only wish to reach in my wildest fantasies. He's got huge, broad, muscular shoulders and black hair done back in a suitably dashing ponytail that glistens in the sunlight. No one would ever think of calling him girly, not even with his purple-brown eyes that are currently narrowed into irritated slits almost completely hidden by lashes nearly as long and dark as my own. He wasn't worried, but he was nervous. He was tapping his long fingers with their blunt, dirty fingernails on the surface in front of him, the rhythm of the staccato beat irritatingly loud in the silent room. He's always gotten annoyed at being expected to wait and always has somewhere better to be at that precise point in time. Arrogant, perhaps, but he's always seemed to merit it. Jace Christopher Simba Rendar-Startredder. Someone gifted with the names of heroes and great warriors. Lucky bastard.

I shift my eyes to the other side of the table. The man seated there was nearly as tall as Jace, with equally broad shoulders tapering to a slim waist. As a child he always seemed a giant to me. Now he's merely a tall man with a strong, thin, acrobatic build. He's got bigger feet than most of us. They're encased in solid looking black boots that are propped on the table, scuffing the glossy surface whenever he moves. He's lounging back in his chair, arrogant and falsely cocky, tipping his chair back as he polishes a long, curved knife that makes me salivate. He's very bored. He often is. He's impatient and hates to be kept waiting. His hair is as clean and glossy as the table was before he put his boots on it, short and flame red. The aquamarine in the shape of a dagger that's dangling from his left ear is a gift my brother and I gave him when we were nine. I love that earring. It's the exact same colour as his eyes. It took us hours to find one of the same unnaturally vivid shade. As a child I idolized him, despite the neat spectacles balanced on his nose, more suited to a quiet scribe than a fiery pirate. I used to make fun of him for wearing those. Now, the part of me that idolizes him still, worships him even more for wearing them and continuing to look incredibly cool. Bravlyn Jamyl Rendar-Startredder. Named for a grandfather dead decades before his birth. My hero since before I could walk.

Next to my hero is the only woman in the room. She's easily as tall as I, maybe even taller. Her often hunched posture makes it difficult to tell for sure. Right now she's showing why her shoulders bunch down together so naturally in that gentle slump. She's craning over the table, head down, scribbling furiously onto a sheaf of paper spread out before her. I bet she's trying to keep her mind off why we're here with something disgustingly academic. I know she isn't doing a very good job of it. Every few minutes her head jerks up, like she's heard something that startled her. Maybe she has. Her hearing's always been unusually sharp. But she always gives an irritable shake of her head, sky blue eyes narrowed in concentration behind her glasses, and shoves a mass of red-gold hair away from her face before bending back over the paper. Fiora Genevieve Rendar-Startredder. Brilliant scientist, inventor, and a girl with the soul of a dragon, or so my brother tells me. Named for no being living or dead that I or my brother have yet discovered.

My eyes drift to the figure at the end of the darkly gleaming table. He's chewing fiercely on his lower lip, skin, normally so pale, turning dark and bruised from the pressure. The rest of his skin is paper white, almost glowing in its paleness. His wide eyes, an unearthly shade of blue, are focussed inward, hundreds of confused emotions lurking in their unending blue depth. Hair like spun gold falls in his face and down his back to pool on the seat of his chair. His hands were trembling but they've stopped. Now, his long, pointed, shell-like ears twitch constantly, rather like a rabbit's. Unlike anyone else in the room, he's more than worried. He's frightened. Fletcher-Kegan Galen Rendar-Startredder. In spite of being named for a wild, vivacious mother, I've never really thought he was girly. Not even when he was small. His first name is a combination of those of a long dead great-uncle and the former king of our country, King Fletcher. I call him Kegan. My brother.

I squeeze my brother's hand lightly and he turns to look at me once more. His eyes focus on my face as he returns to reality, favouring me with a soft smile. He raises golden eyebrows at me curiously, a silent question.

‘What do you see, Ke?'

‘You, idiot!' I can feel his laughter and I can barely contain my relief at having finally distracted him from his paranoia.

‘You're the idiot! What do you see when you look at me?'

‘Are you growing a beard again?'

‘Shut up! Just answer the question, Ke.'

‘Well . . . I see my brother.' I can hear a distinctive mental giggle.


‘I see . . . you. The one who shares my soul. Looking like the coolest pirate in the UL, with your hair in that ponytail. It's just like Jace's, only prettier. I wish I had black hair like yours, sometimes.'


‘And I see kind eyes. They're blue. And not freaky blue like mine either. They're like . . . like ocean blue or something. They're old too, which is weird cause I'm the older one, right?'

‘Only by fifteen minutes!'

‘Still older.'

‘What else?'

‘Why so interested?'

‘Keee, I just want to know.'

‘I see someone tall and strong who I know will always protect me and never let anyone hurt me. When I think about that, it's hard to be scared of anything.'

‘. . . You weren't supposed to notice.'

‘I always notice when it's you, Jonny.'

I smile helplessly at him and he grins in return, before going back to his own semi-private thoughts. I stroke the hilt of my sword lightly before raising my hand, turning it over and frowning in thought. There are times I truly wish I were brave enough to look at myself in a mirror. But old habits and older superstitions are hard to break. I know everyone in this room better than myself, it seems. I know I have black hair and blue eyes. I know I'm hopelessly human. I know my name, Jonathan Alcazar Rendar-Startredder, although I wake up nights sometimes and think it's something else, that I'm someone else, and I know whom I ‘m named for. The king of a country, who knighted my father as a boy younger than myself, and who died on the day of my birth, and my granda. I wish Father had named me Alcazar alone, not left me stuck bearing the name of some dead old king of a barbarous country. I rely on my brother instead of myself, to know me as I know him. I know I'm not as clever as he is, or as eloquent, or even as powerful in lots of ways. But, I also know he depends on me as much as I depend on him. It's like our souls are tied together, and our lives, more so than any other siblings. I'd be lost without him.

Across the room, a door slides open. It's completely silent, aside from the noise of air being gently moved, but all of us are instantly alert, our eyes fixed on the door, as two figures slip in, soft as cats. Or as thieves.

The first man could be Bravlyn. He's tall, handsome, and well muscled, with flame red hair. He drops into the chair at the head of the table with a strangely awkward sort of grace. He's not Bravlyn, of course. His ears are free of piercings, his turquoise eyes clear and soft, unneeding the aid of spectacles. He's wearing breeches of a dark, soft leather, dyed green. His shirt is loose and open necked, made of dark blue silk, with gold embroidery heavy around the neck and cuffs. His expression is normally gentle and apologetic as he wears a soft half-smile that seems to be saying he's sorry for being so tall and strong and redheaded. Right now, however, he looks very worried and slightly frightened, a wrinkle forming between his fine red brows. Oberon Demak Rendar-Startredder. Bravlyn's other half. The namesake of our great-grandfather the Lord of Avalon and the same long-dead grandfather none of us ever got a chance to know. And, for the past month, the King of Marete.

The man behind Bravlyn is smaller than he is. Still tall, he's got a lithe, slim build that's almost delicate. His hair is gold, like freshly minted coins, and falls in soft, short waves over impossibly blue eyes. His face is thin, worried, and ghostly pale. It's not marred by wrinkles, but the presence of a fine, almost invisible network of silver scars more than make up for the youthful smoothness of his brow. He stands behind Bravlyn, small hands braced on the back of the king's chair. He's little more than a pale faced shadow, hovering there, dressed from throat to toe in solid black. He's even wearing black gloves, despite the fact that it's so warm all the men and most of the women are going around without anything covering them but pants or skirts. Fletcher Taylor Rendar-Startredder, dressed all in murderers' black. The image of Kegan. Former king. Our beloved father, whom I worship with my entire soul.

Oberon clears his throat rather nervously, pulling at the collar of his shirt. "I suppose you're wondering why I asked you all to come to this room today," he murmured in a voice only audible because of our perfect silence.

"Don't be an ass, Obe. We all know you're here to tell us that you're abdicating in favour of Jace." Brav gives a strained smirk, cleaning something out from beneath one fingernail to disguise his discomfort. Kegan lets out an uncertain, unsteady giggle, which he quickly muffles behind a cough when he realizes no one's even pretending Brav's comment was funny. I can't even muster the energy to smile in response.

Oberon pinches the bridge of his nose and tries to keep from looking thoroughly exasperated with Brav. "This isn't really the time or the place, Bravlyn."

"Zamta, Obe. I was just trying to cut some of the damned tension in here. I'm bloody near suffocating."

"This is serious, Bravlyn. It's understandable that things are going to be tense and this isn't to be taken lightly," Father sighs, running his fingers through his hair.

Brav goes meek like any of us would when being chided by Father and lowers his feet. "I know, Da. Didn't mean anything by it."

"You never do." Fiora raises her head, briefly, and gives Brav a rather contemptuous look. The tension escalates and Kegan fidgets next to me, fingers twisting together into complex knots and patterns.

"Enough!" Oberon slams his palm on the table in front of him, his shoulders trembling. Everyone goes quiet - Obe never yells. He breathes slowly, the sudden redness draining from his cheeks, leaving him looking sickly. He licks his lips and shuts his eyes. "Don't - don't even start some kind of silly squabble. This isn't the time." His voice is tight and we can all hear the underlying tremble in it, although he's trying hard not to betray his own fear again.

"Let's hear what's going then, Obe." Jace speaks for the first time, voice unusually calm and soothing, easing some of the tension better than Brav's misplaced joke did.

"We're going to war."

The silence is absolute. I could hear a pin if it were dropped on the other side of the door.

Father breaks the silence. "We aren't going to war. Two of the UL's more charming neighbours are."

"So - so this means it has nothing to do with us, right?" I can feel Kegan's hope rising as he speaks each word. "We can let them sort it out, like always, and trade's just going to fall a bit. We won't be getting involved. Right?"

I shut my eyes to keep back the tears.

‘What did I say?'

‘Nothing - you're just so innocent sometimes it hurts.'

"Ke, I really wish it were that simple, but we do have ties to them. To both of them. We can't just let them sort it out." Oberon looks away to avoid seeing Kegan's fright.

"Especially not since Father is one of their knights. He has a duty to protect their king." Damn Fiora. Always so bloody logical. "But Father's oath was to their former king. He's been dead for years now. I suppose it hardly counts."

"And Father isn't in charge of the kingdom anymore. I am."

"Get to the point already, Obe!" Jace claps a hand on Brav's shoulder, restraining him from lunging across the table to strange Obe.

"The point is that we are never going to war again if I can help it." Father's eyes are shut, and for a moment he looks older than anyone in the family ever has. One of his ears twitches, almost as though he were listening to someone, even though none of us can speak. "I vowed that when I took the crown from your grandfather."

"There's going to be a council at Centrepoint next week. As King, I'm going to be attending, to make our stance on this thing clear to Uncle Cosmo."

I can feel Kegan growing hopeful again.


Kegan gives me a vaguely hurt, puzzled look, but slumps back into his chair, biting his lip.

"Just because your brother and I have chosen to keep the country from getting involved doesn't mean the others are going to go the way of isolationism."

"Uncle Kit," Jace sighs and begins to rub his forehead.

"And others. So we've made a few decisions, in the hopes that it will appease Cosmo somewhat. Just because we don't want to sacrifice our people doesn't mean we want others to be needlessly slaughtered."

"Fiora, you'll be off to meet Uncle Cosmo in a village on the edge of the Sahra mountain range tomorrow. If the weather's fine, we're hoping you'll be with him a few days before council. You're to aid him in modifying the arms of any troops he intends to send into this mess. You're also more than welcome to offer other forms of advice that you see fit. Father and I are certainly not going to tell you what you can and can't do for him."

Fiora frowns lightly and looks from Father to Obe to the rest of us, an odd look in her eye, then nods. It's impossible for me to tell how she feels about this, but whatever it is, she obviously doesn't want the rest of us to know.

"Jace you can - " Obe sighs. "You can do whatever you want. It's not our place to order you or any of the other merchants around. Just try not to make things more difficult for us than they already are."

"I understand."

"Brav - you're staying here."

"What!?" I wince as Bravlyn jumps to his feet, knocking his chair over. "I'm just going to sit here while other members of the family are off risking their damned lives!? You can't be serious, Oberon!"

"Bravlyn, you have nothing to provide to a war that a thousand other men can't do just as well. You're going to keep out of this, if I have to ban you from the docks to keep you out of your ships."

"You have a family to look after, Bravlyn. I don't want you leaving Narrin widowed and my grandchildren to grow up without a father."

"Yes, of course, Da, but - "

"And besides, the military doesn't accept people with disabilities." A smirk touches Jace's lips and he leans over to flick one of Brav's lenses with his fingertips.

I share a helpless mental laugh with Kegan. Even under the circumstances, it's impossible not to. Brav's always been insanely touchy about his bad eyesight.

Growling, Brav shoves Jace away and shoves his glasses up his nose with one finger, turning to point indignantly at Fiora. "You're letting her go! She has glasses too!"

Obe sighs again. It's hard to believe there's anything left in his lungs to sigh with, the number of times he's let out the overwhelmed noise. "Fiora won't be doing any fighting. She's there strictly as a scientific advisor in the development of arms."

Brav snarls silently, like a sulky tiger, and you can almost see the tail swishing irritably behind him. His mouth moves in silence for a few moments before he finally scowls and crouches down to right his chair. He straightens it without meeting anyone's eyes, then falls into it, scowling, arms crossed over his chest.

"Are you quite done, Bravlyn?" Oberon arches his eyebrows in that irritatingly superior manner he gets into sometimes.

Kicking a leg of the table, Brav grunts something unintelligible into his shirt.

‘He is a beast sometimes, isn't he, Jonny?'


"Good. Kegan - " Obe's hands twitch slightly and he sets them in his lap where we can't see them.

Kegan's head jerks up and his eyes go wide, fixing on Obe and the terror throbbing through him is almost overwhelming. I try to calm him down, to sooth the fear away.

‘It's okay. He might just want to tell you stay home like Brav. Or he might want to send you to Centrepoint until the war is over. So that you're safe. He probably doesn't have anything he needs you to do.'

Ridi -

‘ – culous, Jonny. You know he wouldn't be so nervous if there was nothing he wanted me for.'

"Since Da doesn't want to have anything to do with the war, the UL forces will be lacking a bit of magical expertise. We want you to go and do whatever Uncle Cosmo wants you to. Training magicians, doing tactical stuff, leading forces, whatever he needs. Whatever he'd have Da doing if Da were there."

"So - so I'll be kind of like a general?"

"Erm, sort of, I suppose. In a way."

"And so maybe, I wouldn't have to do any fighting at all?"

I wince.

"Could be, Ke. Could be. It's hard to tell." Obe shoots a rather pleading look at Father, who shrugs rather helplessly.

"And if I don't have to do any fighting, I won't have to hurt anyone."

"Um, yeah, that's right. If you aren't involved in the fighting, you won't have to hurt anyone."

I shut my brain off fiercely before anything can get out.

"All right then. If it would help you and Da." Ke's still trembling inside with nervousness, but somehow he's managing to keep it from filling his voice. I squeeze his hand gently and he gives me a smile as a reward.

"Jonny - "

"I'm going with Ke!" I sit down hastily and wonder how I ended up on my feet in my first place. I can feel my face grow hot with embarrassment because of the way my voice shot up an octave or three when I yelled - shrieked - Ke's name.

Everyone is staring at me, even Fiora, and all have rather odd looks on their face, except for Father, who just looks upset. He's got a frown forming between his eyebrows like he's getting a headache and has that pained listening expression on his face.

"Um." Obe murmurs intelligently and looks up at Father. I can't believe they actually need to consult on something like this. Could they have thought for even a moment that I'd let them send Ke away to be killed without sending me with him?


‘Hush. It's nothing.'

Father pulls on one of his ears in obvious irritation. "I - um, yes. Yes. Of course you're going with Ke. Generals need - need body guards and such things. Yes. You'll be going with Kegan and acting as his body guard."

Obe frowns and nods, very slowly. It's pretty obvious, even to someone as thick as I am most days, that me being Ke's bodyguard was not a decision Oberon was in on. "I guess that's everyone, then."

Jace stretches backwards. "What about Elix? His Dukeship isn't going to be happy about being left out of this."

"Praelix has to get used to being disappointed. Aster's going to talk to him tonight."

Brav smirks, standing. "Letting the wife do the dirty work? Shame on you, Oberon."

"Then that's everything and everyone, I take it?" Obe glares warningly at Brav, practically daring him to open his mouth again.

We all fidget rather nervously and no one says anything.

"Good. If we think of anything else, we'll talk to you in private. Dismissed."

Brav leaves like a shot, probably worried that Obe is going to give him hell if no one else is around to hear. Jace leaves quietly, looking preoccupied and rather unhappy. Fiora hesitates, glancing at Obe and Father, then leaves with her shoulders hunched and her head bowed. Obe and Father put their heads together and begin talking in low in voices, seeming to have forgotten that Ke and I are still here.

‘Come on. We may as well go get packed.'


Ke pulls on the tip of one of his ears and gets to his feet, taking my hand and pulling me past Obe and Father in perfect silence. I feel invisible, which could well be the case with Ke leading.

‘Ke, how'd this happen?'

‘There's always bad blood between some countries, Jonny. I don't think all the fighting in the world can get rid of bred in prejudices for some of them.'

‘I didn't mean that.'


‘No. I meant us being involved when the rest of the country is keeping their heads down.'

‘Well . . . I think besides Father, I'm one of the most powerful magic users in the family.'

‘What about Robyn?'

Ke doubles over, laughing wildly. It's a wonder he doesn't pass out from lack of oxygen.

‘Oh! Can you imagine Robyn being involved in anything even vaguely serious?'

‘Good point. And me?'

‘Silly. Like they could send me anywhere without you.'

‘Yeah, I guess. Why aren't you worried anymore, Ke?'

‘I'm still worried. But if I know you're going to be with me, protecting me like you always do, then I know everything'll be fine. You'd never let anything bad happen to me, Jonny.'