The summons came at dawn, courtesy of a minor vizier who seemed only too happy to pull Isendiar out of barely an hour’s sleep, if mildly disappointed to find him sleeping alone on the couch beneath the window. Gossip flowed freely through all levels of the palace and he knew it was currently fixated on the celibate prince, the young and mysterious stranger he’d rescue from the desert, and the dragon that had attacked them both. Isendiar wouldn’t have minded the rumours—would have added his own twist to them despite his commitment to remaining pure for the gods—if they hadn’t also reached his exalted father and resulted in a summons at this unholy hour.
He ordered the vizier out and shoved himself to his feet, pulling on the same clothes he’d worn the day before and waving Azima back when she stuck her head into the room and asked him if he needed an escort. Instead of leaving immediately for his father’s chambers at the other end of the palace, as he should have, he padded barefoot into his bedroom to check on Ciaran. Ciaran still slept deeply, sprawled out on his back with the sheet tangled around his waist and one arm thrown up over his head in total relaxation. Amused, Isendiar watched him for a moment longer than reluctantly pulled on his boots and went to see his father.
His father was eating breakfast when he was shown into the room by a stone-faced guard, and only gestured to the pile of cushions across the low stone table from his seat. Isendiar settled himself crosslegged, wishing for the thousandth time that the room wasn’t decorated with the scowling portraits of former kings, all of whom seemed to look directly at him with disapproval. He had the feeling none of them cared that he was a prince, eighth son of the Desert King and promised to the gods for the good of his people. He shifted uncomfortably under the weight of their long-dead glares and tried to ignore how his stomach grumbled in response to the food spread out over the table.
“I hear,” his father said between bites of boiled quail egg, “that you have some strange Northern boy sleeping in your bed.”
“Technically correct,” Isendiar said. “Metaphorically incorrect.”
His father gave him a flatly unimpressed look. “Regardless, Isendiar, who is he and why is he staying in your rooms?”
“His name’s Ciaran and he’s recovering from cracked ribs and a bad sunburn after wandering in the desert for two days. I kept him from being a sand dragon’s dinner.”
“The same one that terrified the city and destroyed the window into your room?” The king raised a dark eyebrow.
“It might have been a different one.”
“Get rid of him. For all we know he is some sort of desert devil sent to tempt you away, and even if he isn’t, if he’s attracting sand dragons, I do not want him here.”
“What do you want me to do, send him back out into the desert to die?”
“Nothing so dramatic unless it’s called for. There’s a caravan leaving tomorrow and going north. Put him on it and let them deal with him.”
Both eyebrows went up and his father paused in pulling apart a greasy roasted scrub grouse. “No?”
“He’s not going anywhere. I rescued him and he’s staying with me.”
“He’s not a pet you can put a collar on and walk around the palace, boy. I am not requesting that you hand him over to the caravan; I am ordering it as your king and as your father.”
“No,” Isendiar said again, feeling weak and shaky inside at defying his father directly, though he was proud of himself for not letting it show. “He stays with me or I go with him. Sire.”
His father’s expression turned thunderous and he slammed both hands down on the table, making the dishes on it jump and knock against each other like dull bells. Struggling not to flinch, Isendiar met stormy black eyes calmly, setting his face into a neutral expression. For a moment they only glared at each other before the king growled, “If he’s laid a hand on you...”
Isendiar snorted a laugh. “He’s half my size and I’m not some blushing child with a first crush. That has nothing to do with it.”
“I rescued him and he has no one else. And I’m not about to abandon him because you don’t think you can trust me. Maybe I’ve had enough of you constantly keeping me from ever making friends or actually spending time with anyone but my bodyguard for the past 24 years. I know what I need to do, Father, and I know what I can’t do in order to accomplish it. Stop treating me like a child and actually trust me for once.” He took a deep breath, trembling a little with anger now, and wide-eyed with the realization that he’d just yelled at his father. “I’m not... I won’t put you and our people in danger like that.”
His father just stared at him for a long moment, eyes narrowed, then he went back to his breakfast. “See that you don’t, Isendiar. This is what you were born for and your existence means nothing without it.”
He flushed at that and got stiffly to his feet, sketching a brief bow before leaving the room. The fact that he knew he’d been conceived and brought into the world solely to be a willing sacrifice didn’t make his father’s dismissal any less of a sting. Shoulders tense, he stalked outside to the rock gardens behind the palace and sat on a broad stone bench, closing his eyes and turning his face up into the sunlight, strong even an hour past rising. He took deep breaths and let them out slowly until he felt his muscles start to relax and the angry tightness in his throat and chest had eased. A shadow passed over him and his eyes snapped open, but it was only a vulture drifting past, on the lookout for something dead or dying to eat.
His rooms were still and silent when he returned to them; Azima had left, though Isendiar knew she would return soon, and Ciaran still slept, now curled up on his side with one fist tucked under his jaw. Isendiar quietly pulled the bedroom door most of the way shut and left again, heading for the corner of the palace where the scholars spent most of their time, sleeping four to a room and scurrying through the halls to the library. A few early risers gave him scandalized looks when he appeared, between bowing low to him as he passed and exchanging hurried whispered conversations with each other. Fighting to keep his pleasant, court-polished smile in place, Isendiar stopped one who looked like he might not have a heart attack on the spot and asked him where to find Raksha.
The scholar looked uncertain but walked him directly to one of the rooms at the end of the hall, bowing deeply before gratefully hurrying away again. Isendiar knocked once then, not receiving an answer, he pushed the door open. Three of the beds were empty, but Raksha still slept in the fourth, sprawled on her back and snoring through her open mouth. Grinning, Isendiar walked to her bed and kicked it a few times until her eyes opened, then widened in horror.
“What are you doing in here?” she demanded, pulling the sheet up to her neck, though underneath she was wearing a high-collared shirt over loose pants. A hot blush spread along the lines of her high cheekbones and she dropped her eyes. “I mean, how can I help you, Prince?”
“I kind of liked it better when you were scandalized.” He dropped down on the edge of the bed. “Ow, this thing is like a rock. How do you sleep on it?”
“I’m a scholar,” she said stiffly. “I only need a place to lay my head for a few hours between my studies.”
“You snore louder than a pig.” He grinned at her. “I want you to teach me Ciaran’s language. He taught me his name, see?” He formed the letters with his hands, still grinning. “But maybe if I can at least speak or write his language, we can talk without a translator.”
He saw her almost ask why, then think better of it. “Of course. I will teach you to the best of my ability. When did you want to start?”
He looked around. “I don’t see anything else demanding your attention. But I’ll let you at least get dressed first and eat something for breakfast. Come to my rooms when you’re done. And... keep this quiet. There are enough rumours around this palace right now.”
She bowed as best as she could with the sheet still clutched up around her neck and he pushed himself up, humming as he left the room in a much better mood. He sent Azima to fetch breakfast as soon as he’d gone back to his rooms and found her there, then went into the bedroom to wake Ciaran up, greeting him by signing his name. The smile he got in return, still a little sleepy, made him feel strange somewhere deep in his belly and he covered it up by gesturing for Ciaran to get up and follow him out into the main room. They ate the food Azima brought—small but sweet apples, boiled eggs, and thick bacon she’d probably stolen from under the cook’s nose—sitting on the couches in mostly comfortable silence.
Raksha arrived just as Azima was clearing the plates, knocking at the door and waiting patiently until Isendiar called for her to come in. She was wearing her robe again and had twisted her dark hair up into a severe bun that aged her face, and she sat as far from Isendiar as courtesy and the fact that she was there to teach him allowed. Her expression softened a little as she greeted Ciaran, who smiled back at her in the same way as he had smiled at Isendiar. That stung a little, like his father’s dismissal had stung, though Isendiar wasn’t sure why.
“Let’s get started,” he said, a touch too loudly. Azima gave him a slight frown but he waved her away with one hand. “What’s the first lesson?”
He spent the rest of the morning learned basic phrases in Ciaran’s language, aware that Ciaran was watching his mouth as he struggled with the unfamiliar cadences and pronunciations. He glanced up a few times and saw that Ciaran was grinning, but there was no malice in it. By the time Raksha begged off for lunch, he’d mastered a few greetings and a handful of phrases that he promptly tried out on Ciaran, not even bothered when Ciaran started laughing.
He took Ciaran out to eat lunch in the rock garden, Azima trailing behind them like a shadow stretched long and wide in dying sunlight. Servants brought them out enough food to feed double their number—even with Azima’s appetite—and cushions to sit on, then they were left alone to enjoy the shade beneath an awning. Isendiar sprawled out, nibbling happily at the food, and let the slight breeze wash over him, inhaling the mixed scents of spices from the market and sand from the desert outside the palace walls.
“That dragon,” Azima said, interrupting his reverie. He sat up immediately and scanned the sky, but found it clear of anything but a few tattered white clouds. Amusement clear in her voice, Azima continued, “It seems strange that any sand dragon would dare to fly into the city just because it missed a meal.” She looked over at Ciaran, who was watching a small group of peacocks—imported from a neighbouring nation as a gift the Desert King had never wanted—with a little smile, occasionally popping bits of fruit into his mouth. “And as cute as he is, the boy is hardly a meal to begin with.”
“I’ve heard tales of dragon tamers in the Northern states.” Isendiar threw a grape up into the air and moved his head to catch it in his mouth. “Maybe this... Earth Ciaran comes from has something similar.” His mood suddenly shifted as he remembered his meeting with his father that morning. “My exalted father wants to put him on a caravan to get rid of him. Because he apparently thinks I’m so weak a pretty face will sway me.”
He gave her an insulted look. “I know what I’m here for. Why is it that everyone leaps immediately to thinking about sex when I show any interest in anything except causing trouble and making the viziers’ lives hell?”
“Easy, princeling.” She spread both hands and ducked her head slightly. “Because it’s natural. Most people do think a lot about sex, and to be fair, before this you really haven’t shown much interest in anything other than turning the viziers grey before their time.”
“I have less than a year left.” He studied his hands, the long fingers and short, square fingernails. “Maybe I just... need to do something else in the time I still have.” He looked up and flashed a grin. “And besides, if he’s already made my father this upset, then it’s going to be an entertaining eight months, isn’t it?”
“What happens after?”
“You’re still looking for this friend of his?” He waited for her nod. “Then hopefully he can go back where he came from. If not, I’ll ask you now to take care of him. Keep him with you or find him a place where he wants to be. Swear it to me.”
“Of course. I’ll look after him like I’ve looked after you all these years.” She reached out one long arm almost lazily and grabbed him around the neck, pulling him in and rubbing her knuckles into the top of his skull. He squirmed, teeth gritted to avoid letting out an embarrassing yelp, and eventually managed to wriggle free, combing his dark hair back with his fingers.
“See that you do.” He took the grapes from their bowl and moved over to sit with Ciaran, showing him how to bring the peacocks closer by tossing them the grapes.
Raksha returned in the afternoon and they spent another few hours working on Ciaran’s language, until Isendiar felt as though his skull might explode with all the new words. He stopped Raksha mid-sentence and went into his bedroom to find the pad of paper, bringing it back out with him and dropping it into Ciaran’s lap. Ciaran looked up at him with a puzzled smile but took the pencil Isendiar handed to him, looking from Isendiar to Raksha and back again.
“Ask him about dragons.” Isendiar sprawled back on the couch, resting his feet up on the table in front of him. “And his magic. What magic does his people have?”
He waited while Raksha put the question to Ciaran, who looked confused and spent a few moments writing. Isendiar watched Raksha’s face as she read the words, frowning when she began to look alarmed.
“What is it? Do his people cast destruction or something? Raise the dead?” He smiled, but Raksha didn’t smile back, her eyes wide with more than just her usual timidity. “Open your mouth, scholar, what is it?”
“He says they have no magic. At all.” She shifted away from Ciaran, whose own confusion was beginning to slide into nervousness.
“None at all? Not even hearth magic like Azima’s? Even children can light small fires.” He laughed but the sound was almost brittle. “He must have something.”
Raksha chewed on her bottom lip and wrote hurriedly, passing the paper back to Ciaran. Ciaran read it then looked up again and shook his head, glancing at Isendiar as though for reassurance. Reaching out without thinking, Isendiar took the paper and tore the top sheet off, tossing it up into the air and incinerating it into less than ash with a single sharp gesture. He saw Ciaran start and the stunned expression widening his hazel eyes told Isendiar everything he needed to know about Ciaran’s people and their lack of magic.
He grabbed Raksha by the front of her robe even as she was starting to get up, rising to his own feet and lifting her up onto tiptoe. “You will say nothing, scholar.” He shook her hard enough to make her teeth clack together, shoving down his own guilt at her terrified expression. “We will continue just as we are and if I hear even the barest whisper of rumour about this, I will make sure you are sent out into the desert for the devils to eat. Are we clear?”
She nodded frantically, both hands wrapped around his wrist, where the tendons stood out in sharp relief. He was about to release her when a sudden hard shove stumbled him to one side, and he lost his grip more to that than because he wanted to. He caught his balance and looked around in surprise to see Ciaran stepping in front of Raksha, his expression stormy. Isendiar straightened up to his full height—easily a good half a foot taller than Ciaran—but Ciaran only folded his arms across his chest and glared up, his body language clearly broadcasting his intention to protect Raksha.
Isendiar spread both hands in submission, slouching a little to keep from towering over Ciaran. Over Ciaran’s shoulder he met Raksha’s frightened eyes. “My apologies, scholar. I shouldn’t have been so rough. How do I apologize in his language?” She gave him the words and he repeated them, as carefully as he could, until Ciaran relaxed and offered a smile. Isendiar smiled back and through his smile added, “It was still a command. Not a word, Raksha.”
“Yes, Prince.” She got up and bowed stiffly, hesitantly touched Ciaran on the shoulder and got another smile in return, and almost ran out of the room.
“I’ll keep you safe,” Isendiar told Ciaran, knowing Ciaran wouldn’t understand what he was saying or why, not yet. “As long as I can.”