Cassandra Citali lay on her stomach, dully rifling through a thick pile of notes. The wind whistled loudly around her and brought a chill to her dark room. Rain battered against her window in a cacophony so loud that she found it difficult to concentrate.

Sighing, she rolled onto her back and gazed at the ceiling, rubbing her temples vigorously. How could she possibly be expected to study? She didn't understand the importance of learning all this pointless stuff anyway.

"Cassandra," her mother called, passing her door with a small glance at her daughter. "You better study! Your father will be returning any moment and you know he will test you."

"Mama!" Cassandra slid off the side of her bed and thumped out of her room, bringing her swaying candle with her. "I can't study with all this noise."

"Tell that to your father," her mother replied impatiently. She was carrying a thick pile of clothes in her hands and was trying unsuccessfully to fold them neatly into a drawer.

"He never understands anything," Cassandra grumbled. Taking pity on her mother, she took a few of the clothes from her outstretched arms and began folding them absentmindedly.

Outside, the rain pounded ever harder on the windows. With a sigh, Cassandra brushed a strand of brown hair from her eyes. She slowly walked to the front hall and settled herself before the cackling fire, trying unsuccessfully to think of an argument that would sway her father. She hated receiving her lessons from him because she constantly thrived on proving herself and she always seemed to fall short. He wasn't always easy on her either. He never failed to stifle his exasperation when she forgot the things she was supposed to be learning. But, she thought miserably, that was just who he was. It was in his nature, as a personal guard to King Gavin, to be unyielding and firm.

Just as she was going to retreat to her room and attempt a last desperate effort at memorizing the various herbs her father had instructed her to learn, the door swung open and three men entered. They stamped their feet roughly on the ground and shook their wet cloaks as they shut the door behind them.

"I think it might be raining a little bit!" her father roared good naturedly, shaking his soaking hair and pulling off his heavily laden coat. He was a tall man that looked very frightening at first glance with his wild hair and beard but Cassandra knew that no one could ever judge her warm, loving father by his outward appearances.

"I noticed," Cassandra replied dryly, eyeing the puddle forming at his feet.

Conrad, Cassandra's older brother, laughed. "I should have known you would be here waiting for us."

"I hope you studied," her father said firmly, pulling off his boots.

"I tried," Cassandra began. "I really did but-"

"Hmm… what excuse is Cassi going to use now? Did a squirrel eat your papers again?" the third male asked, grinning slightly.

"What is he doing here?" Cassandra asked, scowling. Prince Alexander Aleric, with his deep blue eyes and curly back hair, was considered to be extremely handsome by everyone Cassandra knew. She found him nothing short of rude and irritating… existing simply to annoy her.

"He was invited," Alexander replied, stepping out of his boots as well.

Her father took a seat next to his daughter and leaned forward, stretching his hands to warm by the fire's dancing flames. His beard twitched but when he spoke, it was in a very serious manner. "He does have a point…"

"I made that squirrel story up when I was eight," she replied stoutly. "And no one answered my question."

"I invited him, sister," Conrad called from the next room where was changing into something dryer.

It was quite uncommon for nobility to associate themselves with commoners but Cassandra's father, William, was the Kings own trusted, personal guard. His primary duty was to protect the royal family from any danger or threat. He had proven himself repeatedly over many years of dedicated service and had earned the respect from those higher in rank. A friendship had bonded between the royal family and that of William's, most particularly pronounced in Conrad and Alexander, who were the same age. Conrad had been a playmate for the Prince as a child and that bond grew into close adoration and affection. The two were now inseparable. Brothers couldn't be closer.

"Did the Dragon Riders arrive?" Cassandra's mother, Ceri, asked as she entered the room. She was short and plump with graying hair and kind brown eyes. She kissed her husband briefly, moving his soaking boots to a corner near the fire.

"Right on schedule," Alexander replied.

"And not a moment too soon," William added. "Flew right in just as the storm started." He pulled his pipe out and leaned back in his chair, lighting it quickly. After taking a few small puffs he turned to his daughter. "Alright Cassandra, tell me what is Anise used for?"

Cassandra cursed and racked her memory, hoping to stumble across something. Anise, anise. The word kept flashing through her mind but she couldn't pinpoint exactly what it was used for. Unless. . .

"Anise is a powerful herb used to provide strength and courage to the weak," she cited, hoping that she had gotten it right. The grin on Alexander's face was proof enough that it wasn't.

"Did you even study?" William raised his feet and stared at her with eyes that too clearly stated that he knew she hadn't.

"I couldn't, Papa! The wind was howling and rain was hitting my window. How was I supposed to hear myself think?"

"You were supposed to study before tonight." Her father's voice was serious. "Alexander," he asked suddenly. "What is Anise used for?"

"Protection, youth, and purification," Alexander recited perfectly. He flashed Cassandra a wicked look.

Cassandra gritted her teeth and clenched her fists into tight balls of anger. She urged herself to ignore him, urged herself not to fall victim to his taunts. It was what he wanted and she wouldn't give him that satisfaction.

"I suggest you study a little harder," William said seriously. "Herbs can be very vital to your survival daughter."

"It's true Cassi," Conrad said, re-entering the room. His hair was dried and he had changed into some drier clothes. "Remember that time when Alexander and I went hunting? The fool fell and poked himself with his own arrow. . ."

Alexander was laughing. "I think not! It was the other way around. Don't blame your clumsiness on me!"

"I still say you tripped me," Conrad replied crossly.

"From 50 feet away?"

"The herbs boys, the herbs," William reminded them.

"Oh," Conrad replied. "As I was saying. . ."

"You were saying it wrong!" Alexander said, shaking his head. "You fell and I found Fennel, remember? You would have lost your leg if not for that plant growing there."

"Right," Conrad agreed, turning to his sister. "So you see? Herbs are very important!"

"I know they're important," she muttered. "But that doesn't make them stick in my memory any better."

"Nothing sticks in your memory dear," her mother called as she passed.

Cassandra scowled, especially when Alexander and Conrad burst into laugher. She swept from the room and entered the kitchen, mumbling something about her own mother always taking sides with the men, especially Alexander.

"Now, now." Ceri placed her apron on the table and grabbed her daughter's cheeks in both hands. "You know that I love you just as much. Alexander just likes to tease you."

"He's annoying," Cassandra muttered, squirming out of her mothers touch. She began setting plates out for dinner.

Ceri dried her hands on the apron and tucked it into a neat little cupboard. "I only wish you two would get along. For your brother's sake. You know how he feels about Alexander."

Cassandra sighed inwardly. "It isn't my fault!"

"What isn't your fault?" Alexander's deep, slightly amused voice asked from behind them.

"Nothing," Ceri replied with a quick glance at Cassandra before she could say anything spiteful. "You're welcome to stay for dinner if you'd like Alexander."

Alexander grinned. "I'd love to stay, thank you Ceri. No doubt Mother will want me out of her hair for awhile."

"I can't see why," Cassandra muttered, slamming a plate rather forcefully on the table.

Ceri chose to ignore her daughter. "How is Peronel?"

Peronel was Queen of Kevari and married to Alexander's father, King Gavin. Cassandra happened to like them. She didn't know how they had spawned someone as unlikable as Alexander.

Maybe it wasn't a flaw in his character, Cassandra admitted bitterly to herself. No one else seemed to argue with him as much as she did. She had long since come to the conclusion that it was simply the two of them together. Their personalities created conflicts. They always had, ever since they were little kids. Cassandra couldn't think of a conversation with Alexander that didn't involve angry outbursts or childish name calling.

"Look at that," Alexander called from across the table. "Cassi is actually lost in thought."

Cassandra did everything that was humanly possible to ignore him that night over the dinner table. He would often try to provoke her but she heeded her mother's warning and acted as if he wasn't there.

"Dragon Riders should have some valuable information," William grunted between mouthfuls of food.

"Yes," Alexander agreed. "Father has been awaiting their arrival quite anxiously."

Dragon Riders were men who had magical powers and were bound to serve the King as spies, messengers, and if the need called, war. Riders were becoming more rare these days. At one point, Riders were quite common but magic had faded from the land over the last century. It was regarded with more fear than reverence these days and the need for it had become almost completely non-existent. In fact, the only magical creatures that remained were Dragons, and even that powerful race was slowing fading with time. Times were relatively peaceful. Despite a few minor skirmishes on the border, the land hadn't seen war in more than a century.

"With luck they'll bring information from Rhyne... I hear old King Stytha is sick. Some say near death," William commented, jamming a fork into his potato and taking a generous bite. Rhyne neighbored Kevari to the north and the two countries shared a very important trade alliance. The death of a King meant big news for Kevari in the sense that they would have to re-sign this all important compromise.

Alexander nodded. "Father has already began corresponding with his son, Jamal. He'll be the next to take the throne. We don't want to lose our ties with Rhyne but Jamal is proving to be a much more difficult character than we anticipated. You wouldn't believe some of the outrageous trade deals he tries to make with Kevari. It's unheard of."

"Stytha is old, isn't he? Old enough that Jamal is in his early forties... but still not old enough that he should be dying anytime soon, isn't that right?" Conrad asked off-handedly.

"No," William agreed. "With any luck he'll be able to fight off whatever illness ails him. We might not have to deal with Jamal for many years yet."

Silence followed his statement as everyone continued eating, bored of discussing politics. The rain continued to pound on the roof and rain sloshed through the plants just outside the window as everyone began to finish.

"Well," Alexander said, stretching after he had taken his last bite. "I better get home. Father wants me to practice for the tournament tomorrow."

"Tournament?" Ceri asked, eyes furrowed.

"The one between men and women, Mama," Conrad said lightly.

"Oh that one."

"It's just a game, dear," William interrupted.

The tournament was held every year among the women and men between the ages of thirteen and seventeen. The men would fight with dulled blades until the best warrior remained. The girls would do likewise (there were never many girls who entered). Then the best girl and the best boy would spar. It was a tradition that started fairly recently within the last 20 years. It began when women were allowed to train alongside the men and when they were allowed to join the military if they chose to. The tournament created an avenue for women to prove their worth. As women in the military became more common, the need for the tournament faded. These days it simply provided an opportunity to forge good relations among the adolescents of the castle and provided fun entertainment for the adults as well. This year would be the first time that Cassandra was determined enter.

"I'm entering," Cassandra announced.

Alexander and Conrad burst into laughter. "You wouldn't last against the weakest girl!"

"How would you know? Neither of you have seen my lessons… I'm good."

"As good as you know your herbs?" Alexander asked, rolling his eyes.

"You'll see," she said confidently, grinning slightly.

"I've seen her spar," William said fondly. "I think the men are going to have a challenge this year."

"I could be better if you trained me papa..." Cassandra began hopefully.

William's eyes hardened. "We've already spoken on this. No daughter of mine will ever need to know how to fight. The tournament is fun and games, and that should suffice. And don't argue anymore with me Cassandra. You aren't going to get out of the more valuable lessons that women should learn."

Cassandra closed her mouth with a jerk of annoyance and folded her arms over her chest. Fighting seemed much more interesting then stupid herbs and proper court etiquette.

"I've won every year since I was thirteen," Alexander announced proudly into the awkward silence that followed.

"Now, now Alexander," Ceri said, standing up and beginning to take the plates to the wash basin. "You never know what will happen this year!"

Alexander stood and bowed to Cassandra in mock indifference. "I'll see you tomorrow, My Lady."

Conrad laughed and shoved his friend out the door with wave of his hand. He turned to Cassandra, a grin plastered on his face. "Come on, Cassi. You know he likes to play."

"Sometimes I wonder if you love him more than me."

Conrad laughed and lunged toward her. Before Cassandra could move he had her wrapped firmly in his arms and was tickling her madly. Cassandra laughed and tried to beat him off but was too weak.

Finally Conrad stopped and Cassandra punched her brother lightly on the arm. "Not funny!"

"You know I love you," Conrad said, messing up her tangled hair.

"I know."

Cassandra bid her brother goodnight and retreated to her room, smiling happily as she pulled the blankets over her face. Thunder boomed and she shivered slightly, the smile beginning to fade. She hated thunderstorms.

Another loud crash sent her from her bed and treading to her parents room. Before she even reached the door, William called out, "Come in Cassandra."

She smiled thinly and entered the familiar comfort of the room. They had already cleared a space in the bed for her. She snuggled between them and closed her eyes, feeling safe in the presence of her Mother and Father.