He hadn't left his rooms in over three weeks. Let the Chastonian court think he was busy, could not be disturbed. A shut-in. A powerful, yet reclusive, mage that should be left to his own devices lest he call down some horrid curse upon them all. Ashton really didn't care what they thought.
Ashton knew the truth: he was just too afraid to leave his rooms. Too terribly afraid.
There was tight-lipped kind of irony to the whole situation. Ashton, one of the most powerful mages of his generation, locked into his quarters fearful of the outside world. Or if he was honest with himself, fearful of the one man who could make the entire world come crashing down around Ashton's shoulders.
In the weeks since the incident, Ashton hadn't left his chambers. He didn't want to see Prince Rhonan. Didn't want to find that knowing look in Prince Rhonan's jade green eyes. That knowing look most likely accompanied by disgust or amusement or—Powers forbid—hatred. Because the Prince had to know now. He had to know that Ashton was in love with him.
There was no way he couldn't know.
It had started, really, when Ashton was first appointed as the Mage-Apprentice to the Royal Court Mage of Chastonia. At only sixteen, Ashton was young for an apprentice, generally a mage did not even graduate from the magic-school until at least eighteen, and most apprentice court mages were well into their twenties. As such, the Chastonian court had been skeptical of Ashton's abilities, but his brilliance accompanied by his quietly competent nature had quickly put even his most vocal opponents at ease.
Or maybe it was his Master's unswerving confidence in Ashton. From Ashton's first days at the castle, Court Mage Ligon had been there to vouch for him. Ashton never knew why, but Master Ligon believed in Ashton's skill, and Ashton tried his hardest to live up to the Court Mage's expectations.
Or maybe Ashton tried so hard because he wanted to be noticed by a certain someone. Prince Rhonan. Little by little, day by day, the daily counsel meetings between the royal family, court advisors, and the Court Mage became more and more important, until Ashton's days seemed to be centered around those counsel meetings. It was during these meetings, in which Ashton was little more than the Court Mage's shadow—allowed to observe the proceedings but not participate—that Ashton really got to know Prince Rhonan. Not that Ashton ever spoke to the man, but during the counsel meetings the Mage-Apprentice watched the Prince. Watched and admired him.
Prince Rhonan, second child of King Adiran, was the sort of man that everyone instinctively liked, instinctively trusted. He was a clever man, well educated, with a quick wit and an even quicker smile. Tall, much taller than Ashton, he was lithe and well-muscled. He had a strong jaw, sharply chiseled facial features. His dark chestnut hair, shorn to his ears, complemented the bright, sparkling green of his eyes.
Try as he may, Ashton soon gave up all pretenses of lying to himself. He was falling in love with Prince Rhonan. Deeply. Purely. Truly.
Not that it would ever come to anything. What would Prince Rhonan— tall, strong, handsome— want with a shy, quiet Mage-Apprentice like himself? One the Prince had never even spoken to. Although Ashton was fairly certain that his powers didn't scare Prince Rhonan as it did quite a few other Chastonians, so that if Ashton ever mounted the courage to speak with Prince Rhonan, the Mage-Apprentice wouldn't worry that the Prince would flee on the spot.
Not that that was much consolation.
In Chastonia it was not unheard of for love-affairs to exist between men, although it was also not much approved of—seen as dirty, low—especially in the nobility. There was very little chance that Prince Rhonan was taken by men. Or boys, as in Ashton's case.
Because the Mage-Apprentice looked no more than a young boy of twelve. Ashton may have only been six years Prince Rhonan's junior, but he seemed much younger. Ashton was small, slender, his years of study had done little to improve his body; there was had hardly any muscle on him. Ashton had the silver eyes of a mage, as well as the identifying waste-length braid of hair. And much to Ashton's chagrin, he always looked scruffy. No matter what Ashton did there was always some potion or powder staining his purple robes, some fly-away strand of honey-blond hair leaking from his mage-braid.
No, there was no way that Prince Rhonan could ever entertain feelings about Ashton.
No way at all.
The news had come quickly and unexpectantly, like the first drops of a spring rain. The Stithiz, enemy of the Kingdom of Chastonia for as long as anyone could remember, had invaded the western borders of the Kingdom.
From behind his Master's chair in the counsel-hall, Mage-Apprentice Ashton listened anxiously as the Chastonian counsel decided the Kingdom's course of action.
"Princess Elizabeth, we have little choice but to engage them," General Hammen was saying, his lean face drawn somberly. "My Lady, by their very actions the Stithiz challenge your father's authority."
"Yes, General Hammen, I agree with you," Crowned Princess Elizabeth, Prince Rhonan's older sister, was speaking. "However, you know as well as I that we are ill-equipped to fight a war. The army is weakened from last summer's southern campaigns against the Ran Empire. Perhaps we can find a diplomatic solution?"
The Chastonian counsel was but seven members strong. It was composed of Crowned Princess Elizabeth and her younger brother, Prince Rhonan, Court Mage Ligon, Duke Tremaine, General Hammen, and Lords Mida and Higon. Ashton, as Mage-Apprentice to Master Ligon, was allowed only to observe the counsel sessions but not to participate in them. Although the ruling decisions of the Kingdom ultimately fell to King Adiran, it was in the counsel-hall, while listening to the opinions of his advisors, that the King's decisions were frequently determined.
"With all due respect, Crowned Princess, a diplomatic means will not exist with the Stithiz," Lord Mida, Counselor on Foreign Relations, interjected. "Princess, the Stithiz are a hard people; they know nothing besides the strength of their shields."
The Crowned Princess sighed. "Then it is war that you endorse, Lord Mida?"
The Crowned Princess sighed again before saying lowly. "It is inopportune that the
Stithiz have timed their invasion to coincide with our weakened military state."
Ashton understood what the Crowned Princess meant by 'weakened military state'. The Chastonian army had just returned, barely six months prior, from fighting the Ran Empire in the south. The Ran Empire, attempting to expand it's territory, had finally been driven back but at the expense of many Chastonian lives. And now the Chastonian army—smaller, weakened from the campaigns against the Ran—stood a poor chance in defending the Kingdom against this new threat, the hated Stithiz. Very few Chastonians outside of the Chastonian counsel knew the true weakened state of the army; so as the Crowned Princess had asked: how had the Stithiz known to attack the Chastonians at such an inopportune moment?
And it was Ashton's Master, the Court Mage Ligon, who spoke up in response. "It is because of their mages, My Lady. The Stithiz forces can sense how ill-prepared we are for another war through the powers of their mages."
There was a sudden tension, thick as fog, in the counsel-chamber at the Court Mage's words. The reminder of magic, even from one so trusted as Master Ligon, always sent a chill through even the staunchest Chastonian. Noting the counsel's innate fear of his Master's powers, Ashton couldn't help but wonder what the counsel thought of Ligon's quiet Mage-Apprentice. How many in the Chastonian counsel were afraid of what Ashton could do? Surely not Prince Rhonan, at least Ashton hoped not.
Stealing a quick glance at the Prince, Ashton was relieved that Prince Rhonan's countenance held none of the wariness exhibited by some of the other counsel members. Instead, Prince Rhonan's jade-green eyes gazed upon Master Ligon pensively as the Prince reviewed the Court Mage's words. Ashton couldn't help but wish those green eyes would focus on him instead of his Master but that was asking for too much. A scruffy, shy apprentice-mage was beyond Prince Rhonan's notice, Ashton reasoned. Besides, there was no way that the Prince could be interested in those of the male sex.
Prince Rhonan cleared his throat, breaking the silence. Then speaking in that self-assured, deep voice that always sent tingles down Ashton's spine, the Prince turned to Duke Tremaine. "Uncle Tremaine, in your time you fought the Five Years War against the Stithiz. Tell me Uncle, what can we expect?"
Duke Tremaine, younger brother of the King, was thoughtful. "The Stithiz are brutal. Unlike our recent war with the Ran Empire, the Stithiz do not look to expand their borders. They look to destroy. Since their total defeat during the Five Years War, twenty years previous, the Stithiz have hungered for vengeance. Rhonan, my nephew, understand that there are rows here that have been handed down through the generations. The Stithiz will attack our people mercilessly. Expect the land to be plundered, the western villages to be burned. The Stithiz will carry with them death and destruction, moving across the land as a pestilence, and misery will follow in their wake."
A collective moan rang around the counsel-chamber at Duke Tremaine's words. Although each of the counsel-advisors had surely known beforehand of the Stithiz brutality—even the mage-masters in the Chastonian magic school had related stories to their power-gifted pupils—to have those stories confirmed, here in the council-chamber on at the tidings of a new war by one who had fought the Stithiz, was a thing to itself.
Ashton gazed around the counsel-room, noting the counselors' reactions. General Hammen was somber. The Crowned Princess Elizabeth frowning unhappily. Master Ligon was silent, idly stroking the green orb-ring on his right ring finger.
And Prince Rhonan. The Prince fascinated Ashton. As always, Prince Rhonan took the necessary time to consider another's words, his head cocked slightly to the right as he reviewed his Uncle's speech. Ashton admired Prince Rhonan's cool composure, the Prince's ability to view a situation logically. It was obvious to Ashton that the Chastonian-counsel also respected the young Prince's wisdom, because Ashton realized that the silence in the counsel-hall was one of deference as Prince Rhonan completed his internal-debate. Ashton awaited the Prince's judgement as well, noting how Prince Rhonan's striking jade-colored eyes flitted back and forth with his thoughts. Finally, those eyes flashed decisively: the Prince had made his decision.
"Then it is apparent that we must meet the Stithiz on the battlefront," Prince Rhonan said quietly. The counsel stilled at the Prince's declaration. Ashton gulped.
"Father?" The Prince turned to King Adiran, who all the while had remained silent.
The King gazed at his second child, his visage weary. "I dislike returning to war so quickly, but it seems we have little choice. However, I will leave it to the counsel to decide."
A vote was taken. Five votes cast for the war, only the Crowned Princess and Lord Higon, Counselor of Home Relations, against. Ashton, of course, was not allowed to participate.
In the matter of but a few hours it had been decided: Chastonia was going to war.
The Chastonian army was assembled as quickly as able, and by the end of the early spring rains the army was ready to leave for the western front. Much to Ashton's horror, both Master Ligon and Prince Rhonan would be marching with them. As only a Mage-Apprentice, Ashton was not welcome in the soldiers' company; his presence would only be a hindrance
Ashton understood the reasons why Master Ligon and Prince Rhonan would accompany the army. Since it was known that enemy mages marched with the Stithizian army, Master Ligon's presence was needed to defend against magical attacks. Since many of the field commanders had been slain during the campaigns against the Ran Empire six months prior, Prince Rhonan was needed to command a company of soldiers. But just because Ashton understood why the two most important figures in his life were being shipped out to the battlefront, didn't mean that Ashton was any less upset. Or any less terrified.
What if Master Ligon or Prince Rhonan were wounded? Worse yet, what if one of them or both of them never returned?
These thoughts made Ashton's heart still.
But Master Ligon could take care of himself, Ashton had to keep reminding himself. Ligon was, after all, Court Mage of Chastonia. He had been Court Mage for more years than Ashen had been alive. No, Ashton need not worry about Master Ligon's safety.
But what of Prince Rhonan? Prince Rhonan who would be fighting in his first military endeavor. Would Ashton's beloved Prince return from the war? Would he return whole?
Try as he may, Ashton could not dismiss the fluttering anxieties surrounding Prince Rhonan, and so it was with a heavy heart that Ashton found himself standing nervously before Prince Rhonan's chambers the eve before the army's departure for the western front. In Ashton's hand, the Mage-Apprentice clutched a silver ring with a bright blue stone, an orb-ring, Ashton's own orb-ring to be exact.
An orb-ring is a mage's last line of defense. Should a mage's powers run thin, his magical shields weaken, then it is only the power of the mage-ring that will defend him. Given the ring at his induction into the magic school when he was but five years old, Ashton had spent the next twelve years strengthening the orb-ring with protective spells. And now, Ashton hoped those spells would protect his Prince.
A few more moments of waiting, and Prince Rhonan's personal servant opened the chamber door. Mayhap the servant was surprised to find the scruffy Mage-Apprentice lurking outside his master's chambers, but the servant did not show it. Instead, the man escorted Ashton into the Prince's sitting room and bade him wait for the Prince.
Ashton didn't wait for long.
"Mage- Apprentice Ashton, this is a surprise," a warm, jocular voice greeted him. Ashton blinked, he wasn't even aware that Prince Rhonan knew his name.
"Pri..Prince Rhonan," Ashton stuttered self-consciously. It was the first time that Ashton had ever been in Prince Rhonan's presence without the addition of Master Ligon or King Adiran or any member of the counsel. Suddenly Ashton felt a bit overwhelmed.
Out of nervous habit, he found himself clenching and unclenching his fists.
"So to what do I owe this unexpected visit?" Prince Rhonan asked gently. If he observed Ashton's agitation he didn't make note of it, to Ashton's immense relief.
Ashton's fidgeting increased, and he was so nervous that he was unable to even speak. All his rehearsed words seemed to have evaporated from his mind, and he was left dumb, mute in the Prince's company.
And what company. For as long as he lived, Ashton knew that he'd remember exactly how Prince Rhonan appeared that night. Gone were the ceremonial princely garbs, his noble airs. It was just Rhonan tonight, clothed in a simple brown tunic, just the man who haunted Ashton's dreams in bright flashes of tenderness and love.
"Mage-Apprentice?" Prince Rhonan prompted, and to Ashton's embarrassment, the Mage-Apprentice realized he'd been staring.
Face flaming brightly against his honey-blonde braid and silver eyes, Ashton quickly stepped forward. In one perfunctory motion, he'd deposited the blue orb-ring into Prince Rhonan's out-stretched hand.
Prince Rhonan stared at the blue-stoned ring in his hand in confusion.
"Ple…please wear it," Ashton said quietly, seriously. And for one brief moment that seemed to last Ashton's entire life, he was staring into the green of Prince Rhonan's eyes.
But Prince Rhonan broke the moment to take a second look at the object resting in his palm. The Prince gasped in surprise. "Mage-Apprentice, I can't accept this. It's your orb-ring."
"My Prince, I am giving it to you," Ashton said quietly. "So that it will protect you on the battle-front."
But Prince Rhonan made as if to give the ring back. "I know not much of magic, but I know that without your orb-ring, you will be defenseless, Mage-Apprentice."
But Ashton just shook his head. If Prince Rhonan learned anything of the Mage-Apprentice in this brief night-time encounter, he'd learn that Ashton could be extremely stubborn if he chose to.
"Wear it, my Prince," Ashton said firmly, his silver eyes obstinate. "For I will not."
Prince Rhonan frowned. "But why? Why are you giving this to me?"
But instead of an answer, Ashton bowed lowly and quietly exited the Prince's rooms.
The next morning, as the army left the Chastonian capital, Ashton stood behind the King and Crowned Princess to wish the army off. Of the Chastonian counsel only Lords Higon and Mida and the Crowned Princess would remain in the capital. General Hammen, Duke Tremaine, Master Ligon, and Prince Rhonan would head to the western borders.
Ashton had said his brief good-byes to Master Ligon, promising to watch over the castle until his Master's return. Ligon hadn't commented on the fact that Ashton was missing his orb-ring, unheard of for a mage, nor did the court mage ask where the bright blue stone adorning Prince Rhonan's finger had come from. Master Ligon knew when to ask questions and when not to.
Ashton had watched numbly as first his Prince, and then his Master road from the castle courtyard. The Mage-Apprentice couldn't help but wonder if it'd be the last time that he'd see either of them.
The year that passed was one of the most nerve-wracking that Ashton had ever experience. Weekly, the reports would come from the battle-field. Ashton always held his breath as the death tally was read in the Great Hall before the King and Crowned Princess. Much to Ashton's relief, he never heard Master Ligon or Prince Rhonan's names called.
Ashton could never make much of the weekly reports, but from the counsel meetings which he still attended, even without Master Ligon's presence, he learned that the war was going in Chastonia's favor. The Stithiz may have had the larger, better prepared army, but the Chastonian forces were fighting on their own terrain and with a more sure supply line. That, coupled with the resistance of the Chastonian peasantry to the foreign threat, had resulted in a more formidable enemy than the Stithiz army had anticipated. Slowly but surely, the Chastonian forces were pushing the Stithiz army back, and Ashton's fears for Prince Rhonan and Master Ligon slowly diminished. Soon the war would end, and soon his Master and his Prince would return.
And then came the black day, one late summer afternoon, a year and three months from the start of the war. The day when Ashton's life changed forever. News reached the castle of a horrible battle. The Stithiz army, in one last desperate move, had attacked Prince Rhonan's company. In the ensuing battle, Master Ligon died repelling a magical attack, and Prince Rhonan was gravely wounded by a sword-stroke just underneath his left lung. Although Prince Rhonan's company had defeated the Stithiz army, the mood was anything but celebratory as all feared for the Prince's life. Prince Rhonan was rushed from the field back to the Chastonia castle. General Hammen and Duke Tremaine were left the task of disarming the defeated Stithiz army.
In the week after Prince Rhonan's injury and the subsequent rush to bring him back to the castle, Master Ligon was laid to rest. It was but three days after his Master's funeral that Ashton was named Royal Court Mage of Chastonia; Ashton was not even eighteen years of age.
Prince Rhonan was laid in his bed-chambers, and attended only by the highest court healers. During those first days, not even the royal family was allowed access to the Prince. Although the healers managed to clean up the sword-wound, the Prince lapsed into shorter and shorter bouts of consciousness until Prince Rhonan remained motionless, unwaking, and his body began to decline.
It was at this time that the Prince was finally granted visitors; there were many who wished to make their final words with King Adiran's second child. When it was finally Ashton's turn to visit Prince Rhonan, the young mage had shuffled into the room, unsure of what he'd find.
The scene made Ashton's heart hurt. There was Prince Rhonan, or rather a shade of the Prince, lying motionless in his bed. The Prince's face was gaunt, haggard, the once proud chin standing out abruptly in the hollows of his too-pale face. His silky chestnut hair was tangled and matted, framing his head in wild disarray. Those jade-green eyes once shining jewels stared dully, unseeing ahead. And Prince Rhonan was shivering something fierce, although it was a warm summer day, and he was nested in many layers of blanket.
But what caught at Ashton's attention more than anything else was the dark aura of magic radiating from his beloved's prone form. To Ashton's power-sensitive eyes, the dark magic flowed in black, snaky tendrils about the Prince's body. Concentrated from the now-healed sword wound underneath the Prince's left lung, the black tendrils seemed to twist outward in thick ropes to wrap about the Prince's legs, arms, and head. With that much dark magic assaulting his senses, it was a miracle that Prince Rhonan was still alive.
It was then that Ashton recognized the blue orb-ring on Prince Rhonan's finger. Ashton's safe-guarding trinket was probably the only thing that had kept the Prince alive. But soon, even that would fail, because the black magic, growing ever stronger, would soon overwhelm the orb-ring. In the matter of a few days, Prince Rhonan would surely die.
Unless Ashton did something about it.
A mage's library is perhaps his most prized possession after his powers. As Chastonian Court Mage, Ashton's library was extensive, containing the books from the many previous court mages, including Master Ligon's collection. Ashton spent hours, days, nights, pouring through volume after volume, spell after spell, knowing that each moment wasted could be his beloved Prince Rhonan's last. Ashton did not eat. He did not sleep. Just kept searching through those spells, book after book, scroll after scroll.
Until, at last. The Deathlight Spell.
It was not a complicated spell. At least the ingredients were all common enough, Ashton had most, if not all, on hand. He'd need some fresh wraith's root, but that was easy enough to procure. No, what made the spell difficult was the control involved, the concentration. Ashton would have to be focused, chanting the same six verses in preciously the same tone, with exactly the same inflection for nearly six hours. Once he started the spell there would be no stopping, and there would be no resting. To do so would end both his own and Prince Rhonan's lives.
But if the war's forced separation had taught him nothing else, Ashton knew that without Prince Rhonan's heart-stopping smile Ashton's existence would be meaningless. And without the company of Master Ligon or the presence of Prince Rhonan, Ashton's life might as well end; it would be too bleak a life to bear. It was decided then: Ashton would do the spell.
So it was by the first light of dawn that Ashton found himself in the Prince's chamber, arguing with the Head Healer.
"I tell you, healer, that you and your company must leave," Ashton repeated, biting his lip in irritation. "Prince Rhonan is bespelled and to restore his health, I need complete quiet; I need to be left alone with the Prince."
Ashton had stood here, at the entrance to Prince Rhonan's chambers for almost fifteen minutes. The Head Healer, an irritatingly pompous man, was refusing Ashton's admittance to the Prince's sick-chambers, although it was Ashton's right to be in those chambers. As newly-appointed Court Mage, Ashton had free range of the castle and free right to investigate any magically doings in the Chastonian Kingdom. Those rights should include admittance into Prince Rhonan's chamber if Ashton believed that the Prince was afflicted by a magical disease.
"And I tell you that 'tis not possible that the Prince be influenced by magic," the Head Healer, a tall, brown-haired man clothed in an olive colored robe, spoke slowly as though Ashton were thick-witted. "Master Ligon protected the Prince from the enemy's magics until the very end, so I hear. There was no chance that Prince Rhonan was endangered by magic. Unless you are questioning the late Court Mage's effectiveness?"
"I, of all people, knew the extent of the late Court Mage's powers," Ashton returned coldly. "He was my Master."
"Then you know the Prince's wound is not magically infected because Master Ligon would not allow it to be infected." The Head Healer was aggravatingly self-assured. "Besides the wound is healed. I personally saw to it myself. Therefore your aptitudes are not required."
Ashton's blood was beginning to boil. Why was the Head Healer refusing Ashton's aid? Was the man really foolish enough to discount the warnings of a mage? While Ashton and the Head Healer argued semantics, every precious moment sped his beloved Prince Rhonan closer to death.
"Healer," Ashton said in a stringently tight voice. "Prince Rhonan is dying of a magically-inflicted disease, and his condition is dire. Mayhap the dark-affliction was derived from the hands of a Stithizian mage or the blade of a magical sword; I know not, nor do I care. All I care about is healing Prince Rhonan, and that, healer, can only be done with magic."
But the Head Healer was defiant. "There is no way that I am leaving the Prince's life in the hands of a newly minted, green mage!" He sputtered.
And there it was: the real reason for the Head Healer's refusal of the young mage's aid. As usual, Ashton's lacking of years, his youthful visage, was interpreted as a lacking of competence. The Head Healer did not trust in Ashton's mage-skills because he did not believe that Ashton was experienced enough to be trusted. And it didn't help that in Ashton's new position as Royal Court Mage he was untried.
But none of that mattered. Prince Rhonan was dying, and Ashton was the only one who could save him. That was what mattered. And if the Head Healer would not listen to reason, then Ashton would force him to listen.
"Healer," Ashton said lowly, dangerously and the Head Healer was taken aback by the sudden ferocity emanating from the usually complacent young man. "It is my right as Court Mage to investigate magical-dealings. Either you and your company will leave the Prince's chambers, or I will make you leave."
The Head Healer paled. "You wouldn't dare," he said finally.
Like most Chastonians, the Head Healer was deathly afraid of magic.
In response, Ashton began to chant.
"Dellini Dellini ra
Fa Fa sor
Daya Daya Ka"
With an angry glare, the Head Healer practically fled the premises and his companion healers were quick to follow. Soon Ashton was left alone in the Prince's chambers.
The young mage couldn't help but snicker. Although Ashton knew he'd be at odds with the Head Healer for the rest of his career as Court Mage, Ashton couldn't help but enjoy the Head Healer's reactions to his chanting. Chastonians sure were wary of magic. The spell Ashton had recited to the healer was only the first lines of a stain-removing spell Ashton used to clean his robes. Of course the Head Healer didn't know that.
After locking the door to the Prince's chamber, and then adding his own magical barrier—one that would kept the door shut and any outside sounds from entering— Ashton made for Prince Rhonan's bed.
The Prince looked even worse than Ashton remembered, like a living corpse. He was mounded under blankets, although the late summer heat dictated light robes. The flesh clung to his bones; his face was all hard angles. The Prince's eyes were closed. His breathing came in short, shallow gasps. If it wasn't for the chestnut-colored hair that fanned about Prince Rhonan's head like a halo, Ashton wasn't sure if he'd be able to recognize his beloved Prince.
And the black aura of magic cloaked the Prince so thickly that through his power-sensitive eyes Ashton had trouble seeing Prince Rhonan at all. The blue orb-ring flickered like a dying candle.
Raising a light hand to Prince Rhonan's cheek, Ashton softly caressed the fevered skin. Prince Rhonan moaned softly.
"It's alright; I'm here." Ashton confided in a soft, soothing tone.
Gently, Ashton pried open Prince Rhonan's mouth. Then Ashton reached into the pocket of his purple mage-robes, and produced a large bottle of paste. Scooping some of the paste onto his finger, Ashton carefully spread the paste—a mixture of wraith's root, chanon lily petals, hiyit powder, and frog's weed—onto Prince Rhonan's dry, swollen tongue.
Then Ashton scooped out a little more of the paste and rubbed it into his own mouth.
That was the easy part of the Deathlight Spell: preparing the mage and the patient.
Now for the hard part. Taking a breath to steel him, Ashton allowed one last look at his Prince, his Prince Rhonan.
"Please Prince Rhonan, my love, please come back to me," Ashton whispered. Only here, with the Prince fevered and unwaking, would the young mage ever dare to voice his love aloud.
Ashton closed his eyes and began to chant in the mage tongue.
Dellini lucche rivere antha.
Talcu septi miska he.
Rast rast el.
Dellini lucche rivere anthi.
Talcu septi miska hu.
Rast rast eli.
It was a thing onto itself that chant. Over and over again. Ashton spoke slowly, carefully. With great delicacy shaping each and every syllable on his tongue. He was meticulous, cautious, knowing full well that even one pause, one mismangled word would end his Prince's life as well as his own.
Time passed. Sometimes swiftly, sometimes slowly. Ashton's mouth grew dry, and he longed for water or rest. But he didn't hesitate, and he didn't falter. Just kept chanting.
And slowly, something seemed to whisper, like a whirling of the wind. Seeking to distract him, to undo his concentration for only a moment.
But Ashton pushed on, redoubled his efforts.
Dellini lucche rivere antha.
Talcu septi miska he.
Rast rast el.
Dellini lucche rivere anthi.
Talcu septi miska hu.
Rast rast eli.
The world existed only in those words. Ashton's happiness, his very life in the recitation. Because Prince Rhonan was Ashton's life now; whether the Prince realized it or not, whether Prince Rhonan could ever love one as unworthy as the shy, introverted court mage. Ashton knew that eternal happiness would be his if Prince Rhonan would just once more smile upon Ashton's face.
Time passed. Seconds. Minutes. Hours.
The distracting wind grew stronger, louder, until Ashton could actually feel the way his long, honey-colored hair whipped around him, the mage-braid tossed by the angry breezes whirling about the Prince's chamber.
And suddenly, Ashton felt as much as heard a clapping explosion, and he felt as his mind jolted! And although his eyes were clasped tightly shut, he was seeing.
He was standing on large cliff, overlooking a bottomless chasm below. The sky was a dark gray color, a watery sun almost completely hidden beneath the horizon, and all around there was nothing to view other than the cliff-top and the deep chasm.
He was in a thought-plane, Ashton realized. A dream-like place that exists only in one's mind. The orb-ring must have created this place; it was the only thing keeping Prince Rhonan spirit from fleeing his body.
Prince Rhonan. And there Ashton saw him, standing near the cliff's edge.
His Prince. Whole. Healthy. His noble features once more strong, vivacious. His chestnut-colored hair silken, lustrous. But his usually sparkling jade green eyes seemed odd. It was like the fire had burned out of those eyes. They were dull, tired almost.
But weary eyes or not, it was his Prince. His love.
"Prince Rhonan!" Ashton called, feeling a tight welling in his throat.
And although separated by a large distance on the cliff-top, it was as though Prince Rhonan could hear Ashton's voice, because the Prince suddenly cocked his head in court mage's direction.
"Mage-apprentice Ashton?" Prince Rhonan asked in confusion. "Is that you?"
Somewhere, far off, Ashton was still aware that he was sitting in the Prince's bedchambers, chanting over Prince Rhonan's near-dead form. At the same time, the Court Mage was here on the cliff-top smiling widely at the Prince, heart thumping erratically.
"Prince Rhonan!" Ashton called again. And he found his thought-self running along the cliff-top, speeding towards Prince Rhonan. His Prince Rhonan.
"Mage-apprentice Ashton," the Prince repeated as Ashton's smaller form neared him. "It is you." The Prince stared in disbelief, and his pale green eyes waxed warily.
"Prince Rhonan, I've come to bring you back," Ashton stated. In the thought-plane, Ashton grasped Prince Rhonan's hand and began to drag him to the edge of the cliff. There was the only way out of the thought-plane, Ashton knew instinctively, and it was by plunging into the endless abyss.
But Prince Rhonan didn't budge.
"Come Prince Rhonan. We're going home." Once more Ashton tugged the Prince's arm. "It is time to leave this place."
But the Prince didn't move. Just gazed down into Ashton's silver eyes with weary resignation.
"I'm not sure how I've gotten here," Prince Rhonan stated quietly. "But I will not throw myself off the mountaintop. That is pure folly." Then Prince Rhonan stared at Ashton in disappointment. "And you aren't the Mage-Apprentice either," the Prince said sadly. "He would never wish to hurt me. You must be another wraith here to torment me." Prince Rhonan sighed dejectedly. "Well, go ahead."
Ashton's brows furrowed. "I'm not a wraith!" Ashton protested. "It's really me, my Prince. It's Ashton, your Mage-Apprentice—well, your Court Mage now. And I'm here to bring you home."
But Prince Rhonan just shrugged uncaringly. "Yes, that's what they all say. I've been visited by my father and mother, my sister and my Uncle Tremaine. They all claim to be real, but in the end they just fade away. I don't know if it's my mind creating such companions to keep me occupied, or it's the evilness of this place," Prince Rhonan gestured to the gray dusk, the fathomless pit. "But I grow weary of it all."
"Then let me bring you home," Ashton pleaded.
But the Prince just shook his head in refusal. "There may be one way out of this abominable place, but I am not desperate enough to take it." Prince Rhonan said firmly. "I will not end my own life."
Ashton's lower lip trembled, and he swallowed the lump that had risen in his throat. "Then you will end mine, my Prince."
There was a long moment of unspoken silence.
"What mean you wraith?" Prince Rhonan asked finally.
But Ashton could not meet his Prince's gaze.
"What mean you?" Prince Rhonan repeated, his voice low and frightening. Commanding, as the king's son that he was.
And Ashton had no choice but to answer. But he wasn't sure what to say.
Finally he settled on an explanation. "You have been here a long time on this mountaintop, have you not my Prince?"
Prince Rhonan nodded.
"And it was not always this dark, was it not?"
"No, when I first arrived, the sun was still in the sky, but it has now fallen."
"Yes, it is dusk," Ashton agreed. And then Ashton took a deep breath and gazed deeply into Prince Rhonan's cool green eyes. "My Prince, the light…it is the existence of this place; the evil magic that sickens your body also keeps your mind imprisoned in this place. If not for the orb-ring I gave you, you would have surely died. But if we do not leave this place before the light darkens we will die."
Prince Rhonan stared aghast. "You lie," he said at last.
"So to 'save' myself, I am to throw myself off the cliff, then?" Prince Rhonan demanded. "Is that what you would have me do, wraith?"
Ashton stared into those green eyes, his own silver gaze somber. "My Prince," Ashton said at last, "I will not have you do anything that you do not wish. However, if you are to remain here, then so shall I."
"But you just said that remaining here would kill you." Prince Rhonan pointed out.
Ashton nodded affirmation.
"They why do you not leave? Take the escape off the cliff as you counseled me?" Prince Rhonan's eyes flamed. "Because you know that the cliff route will kill you! You wish to trick me into taking it myself!"
But Ashton just shook his head sadly. "No." He said so softly that the Prince barely heard him. "I will not leave you because I cannot bear to. If you shall die, then I shall die beside you." Ashton smiled softly. "Rhonan, my Prince, in the year that you were in battle… I missed you so…I know now that my life is a bleak existence without you."
At those words, Prince Rhonan's angry expression melted into a pensive one, and he sat onto the rocky ground. Ashton sat with him.
They sat for a long while, before Prince Rhonan finally sighed irritably. "If you really are my court mage, then I do not wish to rid the world of his talents." Prince Rhonan's lips quirked into a small, affectionate smile. "And you seem stubborn enough to be him. Also, I'm getting quite sick of this place."
Then the Prince took Ashton's slender hand into his larger one, and in this dream-like place Ashton noticed that the blue orb-ring was still shining, albeit dimly, on Prince Rhonan's finger.
"Alright, mage" Prince Rhonan said, "bring us home."
In the thought-plane, Ashton walked them to the cliff's edge. Then taking a deep breath and still clasping Prince Rhonan's hand, Ashton plunged into the abyss below.
Ashton was falling, falling for an eternity. Wind whipping his long blond braid; wind clinging to his purple mage-robes. Ashton fell into the nothingness, still clinging to Prince Rhonan's hand.
He was still clutching Prince Rhonan's hand when the world righted itself. When he opened his eyes in the Prince's bedchamber.
Dellini lucche rivere antha.
Talcu septi miska he.
Rast rast el.
Dellini lucche rivere anthi.
Talcu septi miska hu.
Rast rast eli.
Ashton was still chanting, but the spell was complete. He could stop now.
Ashton gazed at the slumbering form before him. Prince Rhonan's body still looked sickly, too-thin, but his breathing had steadied. The fever had broken. And as Ashton watched, Rhonan's eyelids fluttered open. The Prince was too weak to do more than gaze at the Court Mage, but Ashton just smiled all the same.
"We made it, my Prince," Ashton's voice felt craggy and dry from hours of ceaseless chanting. But Ashton was happy. Prince Rhonan was alive. "I told you I'd bring you home."
Prince Rhonan weakly squeezed Ashton's hand, before his eyes slumped closed and he fell into a peaceful sleep.
That was the last time that Ashton had seen the Prince, because over the next few weeks, Ashton had barricaded himself inside his mage rooms. After the incident with the Head Healer, few Chastonians wished to bother the Court Mage and risk his wrath, so Ashton was left alone. Ashton's only disturbances were the messengers Prince Rhonan had recently begun sending to request Ashton's audience. Each of these messengers Ashton turned away. Ashton was busy with a spell, was the young Court Mage's excuse for declining the Prince's summons, and Ashton could not be disturbed.
That excuse could only last for so long.
Why would Prince Rhonan wish an audience with him? Ashton wondered. Just to give the ceremonial words of gratitude for saving the Prince's life? Ashton didn't want to see the Prince kneeling, didn't want to hear the words—they were meaningless. But more than anything, Ashton did not want to face Prince Rhonan now that Prince Rhonan knew. The Prince knew that his bumbling Court Mage was in love with him.
It was a terrifying thought.
"I will not leave you because I cannot bear to. If you shall die, then I shall die beside you. Rhonan, my Prince, in the year that you were in battle… I missed you so… I know now that my life is a bleak existence without you."
Ashton had meant the words when he'd said them. He still did. But that did not mean that he didn't regret saying those words.
What would the Prince say? Was Prince Rhonan disgusted with Ashton? Or worse yet amused? Would he ask King Adiran to dismiss Ashton from the Chastonian court?
Ashton's heart shuddered. And yet what if Ashton hadn't said those words to his Prince? If Ashton hadn't refused to leave the cliff-top without Prince Rhonan. Would Prince Rhonan have died?
Ashton gulped. It was better not to think of these things. It was better to concentrate on the task at hand: replenishing his stash of hiyit powder, yet another one of the mundane tasks he'd busied himself with during the last few weeks. Anything to keep his mind off of Prince Rhonan.
Or off of missing Master Ligon's warming presence.
Pound the hiyit root five times. Drop the salt crystals into the powder: one, two, three. Now swirl the mixture three times counterclockwise, two and a half turns clockwise. Now pound the mixture five times. Drop three more salt crystals into the powder. Swirl the mixture three time counterclockwise, two and a half turns clockwise. Repeat this process seventy-three times.
Ashton was on pounding the hiyit powder for the fifty-seventh cycle, when he heard the pounding on his door.
"I am busy with a spell," Ashton called out. "I do not wish to be disturbed."
That was usually all it took for the servant's to leave. If it were a messenger, he'd deliver his message then from behind the closed door. Prince Rhonan had sent five messengers in the past week alone.
Ashton paused, listening for a message. When none came, he shrugged and resumed pounding the hiyit powder.
Pound! Pound! Pound!
The knocking sounded again.
"Whatever it is, leave it on the doorstep," Ashton called. Sometimes a mage was given small trinkets, rewards for his services. Ashton had received quite a few of those over the last week from various citizens loyal to the Prince, in gratitude for saving Prince Rhonan's life. Oh course, these trinkets were never delivered in person; the Chastonians were too fearful of Ashton's powers to wish to meet the Court Mage in person.
Of the Chastonian court, only King Adiran and Crowned Princess Elizabeth had spoken to Ashton since the Court Mage had saved Prince Rhonan's life. That had been a ghastly, formal thing conducted in the King's own chambers. Much to Ashton's relief, Prince Rhonan had not recovered enough to be present as the King and Crowned Princess thanked the young Court Mage for saving the Prince. They hadn't mentioned the affair with the Head Healer.
After the audience with the King and Crowned Princess, Ashton returned to his mage- chambers. He bolted the door.
Which was being knocked upon for the third time now! Ashton sighed in exasperation. Laying the unfinished hiyit powder aside, and marking on a scratchboard that he was in the fifty-seventh cycle so he wouldn't forget—the hiyit powder had to mixed for exactly seventy-three cycles or it would be useless—Ashton made his way to his chamber door.
"This better be important," Ashton muttered angrily. "Or someone may find themselves running around in the guise of a chicken for the rest of the week."
He wrenched the door open. Only to want to wrench it shut again.
"Pri..Prince Rhonan," Ashton gasped, immediately wishing to curl in upon himself and hide.
"Mage Ashton," Prince Rhonan replied. "May I come in?"
When Ashton—in shock at seeing Prince Rhonan—didn't respond, Prince Rhonan leaned in with an amused smile. "You'll not transform me into a chicken, I hope."
Ashton paled. Prince Rhonan had heard him?
"Oh…uh… no," Ashton stuttered.
"Are you sure? I heard some rather vicious rumors concerning you and a certain Head Healer."
"Oh…I…er," Ashton paled further. "I wouldn't have really done anything to him," Ashton protested feebly. "I just needed him to leave—I'm really not that kind of a mage!"
Ashton just wanted to turn about and hide in his rooms. So Prince Rhonan had heard about Ashton's escapade with the Head Healer? By now the Prince, like the rest of the Chastonian castle, probably believed Ashton was a powerful, frightening mage ready to spew curses at the slightest provocation.
Ashton felt numb. What infinitesimal chance had ever existed with Prince Rhonan had just evaporated like rain on hot stone. Prince Rhonan would never look upon the Court Mage with anything other than fear.
And yet Prince Rhonan was offering Ashton a small sympathetic smile. "However, anyone with half a brain would know how overbearing Head Healer Dunkin can be. And whatever you did to him, he probably deserved it." Prince Rhonan's green eyes glittered with good humor, surprising Ashton with their candor.
Maybe Prince Rhonan wasn't fearful of the Court Mage after all.
Prince Rhonan continued, "Besides, after saving my life, half the Chastonian court is waiting for you to finish up with whatever spell it is that you can't seem pull yourself away from to offer you their personal thank you's."
Ashton stared. The Chastonian court wished to thank him? "I thought they were afraid of me," he admitted in a hushed tone.
Prince Rhonan smiled, almost affectionately. "Well you can't be all that bad when you have the entire royal family singing your praises, now can you?"
Ashton stared wonderingly.
"Now do you mind if I come in?" Prince Rhonan asked. "This hall is a bit drafty."
"Oh… yes…yes, come in my Prince."
Ashton tried to still the nervous clenching and unclenching of his fists.
What was Prince Rhonan doing here? Ashton thought he'd have a little bit longer before the inevitable encounter with his Prince. Although, Ashton had also considered fleeing the Kingdom before that happened. Wasn't Prince Rhonan supposed to be on bed-rest still?
"Aren't you supposed to be on bed-rest still?" Ashton blurted out. Then cursed himself his lack of manners. Ashton should not speak to his Prince as if he were a peasant farmhand instead of the Prince's Court Mage.
But Prince Rhonan just smiled, ignoring Ashton's breach of etiquette. "According to the court-healers, yes I should still be on bed-rest. According to me, no."
Ashton took a quick look at Prince Rhonan then. The Prince certainly looked better. He had put on a little weight, although he didn't look as muscled as Ashton remembered. Gone was the paling countenance; there was a healthy pallor to Prince Rhonan's cheeks. The green eyes glittered like jewels.
"You certainly look well—recovered, I mean." Ashton offered shyly.
"Thanks to you," Prince Rhonan smiled warmly.
Ashton didn't know what to say then. And he felt uncomfortable with Prince Rhonan in his quarters. Uncomfortable and embarrassed as Prince Rhonan's jade-green eyes swept around Ashton's work-room. Like most mage-rooms, the place was a giant mess of papers and powders, books, and half-finished manuscripts, herbs and potions, jars of oddly-colored gels. To the unobservant eye, the work-room was a chaotic place. To the trained eye it was an extremely chaotic place. Only Ashton—and Master Ligon before him—were able to find what they were looking for.
And Prince Rhonan, freed from his illness and once again emitting his aura of noble perfection, stuck out sorely in the cluttered room.
"Can I…can I help you with something, my Prince?" Ashton stuttered, and he had the misfortune of feeling Prince Rhonan's gaze upon him.
What a sight the Court Mage looked, Rhonan thought. It had been more than a year since Rhonan had seen Mage Ashton, and had the mage always been this breath-taking? During Rhonan's time away, the Court Mage had blossomed into a lovely young man, a far cry from the slight, gawky youth that Rhonan remembered. Mage Ashton was taller, more filled out. He had a winsome face: heart-shaped with an elegant little nose, and full lips. His pale silver eyes seemed as clear as a moonlit lake, and as Rhonan watched those eyes shimmered with the young mage's nervousness. The mage's waist-length honey colored hair lay unbound across his back, much nicer than the rather severe braid that Mage Ashton usually sported. And as always, the mage's purple mage-robes were stained, this time by some yellow dusty powder.
"Pri…Prince Rhonan?" Mage Ashton stuttered. The Court Mage was doing the clenching thing with his fists; the thing Rhonan noticed that the Court Mage did when he seemed nervous.
"Prince Rhonan?" The mage ventured timidly again.
He was a shy, quiet young man, and Rhonan had spent many a night on the battlefront wondering of those obstinate silver eyes. Those silver eyes that had refused to answer the Prince when he'd asked why Mage Ashton had given Rhonan his blue orb-ring.
Why had Mage Ashton given Rhonan the orb-ring? Rhonan still hadn't uncovered the answer.
And then the Prince's illness.
"I will not leave you because I cannot bear to. If you shall die, then I shall die beside you. Rhonan, my Prince, in the year that you were in battle… I missed you so… I know now that my life is a bleak existence without you."
Had it been real? That cliff-top of death? Had Mage Ashton really been there with Rhonan? Had the stunning creature before him really said those words to Rhonan?
Or was it naught but a fevered illusion?
"Mage Ashton, I formally wish to express my sympathy for your late Master Ligon. He was a good man, and he died serving his liege lord 'til the end. I also wish to express my confidence in your skill as my father's Court Mage. Finally," and here Rhonan found himself falling to one knee, in the ceremonial gesture of princely gratitude. "I express my gratitude to you for saving my life. As such, I owe you the debt of a Prince. Speak a request, and I will grant it."
Ashton stared at the kneeling Prince miserably. Was this it, then? After all Ashton's weeks of avoiding Prince Rhonan, of waiting in apprehension for Prince Rhonan's reaction. This was it? Prince Rhonan was going to pretend like the words that Ashton had spoken on the thought-plane meant nothing? Ignore them, like they never happened.
Ashton sighed sadly, his silver gaze unable to meet Prince Rhonan's jade one. "I don't wish anything." Ashton replied quietly, his voice thick. "At least not anything that you'd wish to give me."
Prince Rhonan stared at Ashton in confusion.
"I'll accept your gratitude, though," the court mage continued, his voice strangely subdued. "And I'm just happy that you're alive."
The work-room felt cold, small, lonely, and Ashton wished that Prince Rhonan would just leave.
"Thank you for stopping by, my Prince," Ashton said quietly, his silver eyes looking everywhere but at Prince Rhonan. "But if you'll please excuse me, I'm quite busy."
Without waiting to see if Prince Rhonan had left or not, Ashton seated himself behind his table and started back on the hiyit powder.
Pound the hiyit root five times: one, two, three, four, five. Drop the salt crystals into the powder: one, two, three. Now swirl the mixture three times counterclockwise: one, two, three.
Ashton wasn't sure what he'd expected from Prince Rhonan. Whatever he thought would happen, Ashton hadn't thought that his Prince wouldn't even acknowledge the words that Ashton had said to him. Prince Rhonan had seemed better than that somehow.
But then again he was just a stupid young mage. Unworthy of love. Unworthy of Prince Rhonan's affections. And no matter what Prince Rhonan had claimed, the Chastonian people still feared him; Chastonians always feared the power-gifted. Without Master Ligon for company, Ashton was alone.
And the tears were falling from Ashton's eyes before he'd even realized it.
Master Ligon was gone. Prince Rhonan could never care for him. He was alone.
Pound the hiyit root: one, two, three,
Tears streamed down his face in torrents.
Four, five, six, seven, eight, nine…
He'd ruined the hiyit powder.
He didn't care.
Pound! Pound! Pound!
He was sobbing near uncontrollable now.
POUND! POUND! POUND!
The hand on his shoulder startled him, and he knocked the ruined hiyit powder onto the floor. Yellow dust exploded about in a great cloud, billowed about Ashton's face and robes, covering him in a thin yellow film, and then slowly filtering its way to the floor.
Not that Ashton noticed. He was too busy hyperventilating as he realized that Prince Rhonan was still in his work-room. Prince Rhonan had seen him cry.
Ashton wanted to curl up in embarrassment right there. Or maybe he could just turn himself into a hawk; fly far away from here.
Prince Rhonan's hand was still on Ashton's shoulder. Ashton stared at it in confusion, and the Prince reluctantly? pulled it away.
"Mage Ashton," Prince Rhonan hesitated, stopping to gathering his thoughts. Finally he spoke. "When I was sick, I dreamed that I was trapped on a mountaintop. I waited for a long time. Forever, it seemed. And then you were there, and you saved me."
Prince Rhonan's green eyes gazed upon the Court Mage, now completely covered in a fine yellow dust, except for the wet streams around his eyes attesting to the tears but a few moments earlier. The Court Mage was like a beautifully crafted, but painfully melancholy yellow-clay sculpture. To Rhonan's consternation, Mage Ashton did not meet his gaze.
Instead, the Court Mage studied the grinding stone in his yellow-powdered hands. "It was no dream," the mage said so quietly, that Rhonan almost didn't hear him.
But hear him, Rhonan did.
"Then, everything that happened there was real?" Prince Rhonan asked.
"Yes," Ashton replied dully. "At least everything that happened between you and me."
The Prince was silent, and Ashton regarded his grinder with a scholar's eye, trying valiantly to ignore how his heart beat faster and faster as the Prince's silence prolonged.
Ashton understood what the silence meant. Now that Ashton's ill-timed words could not be written off as the gleanings of some fever-induced dream, the Prince was uncomfortable, disgusted, if not worse, Prince Rhonan found Ashton contemptible. Men did not love men, especially not princes. Ashton was a fool.
And finally, Ashton couldn't take it any longer. He swept his silver gaze upward, ready to encounter whatever emotion that Prince Rhonan exhibited.
Except for this one.
Prince Rhonan was smiling softly, his jade-green eyes shining. Ashton remained motionless, transfixed, as Prince Rhonan's hand gently reached for Ashton's cheek. It was then that Ashton noticed the blue-orb ring, still encircling the Prince's finger. As Prince Rhonan's hand softly, almost tentatively stroked Ashton's cheek, the blue ring stone blazed brightly.
"I'd convinced myself it was naught but a dream," Prince Rhonan said quietly, his hand softly caressing Ashton's face. "I will not leave you because I cannot bear to. If you shall die, then I shall die beside you." He quoted.
Ashton felt his face flaming in embarrassment, but Prince Rhonan's gentle smile, his soft touch was soothing. "Prince Rhonan, I…er—"
"—just Rhonan if you please," the Prince corrected him.
"Alright, Rhonan," Ashton savored the name. Ashton felt as if he were dreaming, as if he were soaring high above the world of reality; although the warm feel of the Rhonan's hand on Ashton's cheek was much nicer than in any of Ashton's dreams. "Those things I said…I well…"
"Did you mean them?" Prince Rhonan—Rhonan asked tenderly.
Ashton nodded, not trusting his voice.
"And I'd venture that's why you lent me your orb-ring all those long months ago?"
Again Ashton nodded, cripplingly shy.
Rhonan smiled affectionately. "I was wondering about that," he confided. "I used to ask myself everyday what reason could it be that a mage would gift me with something as important as his own orb-ring. I could nary find the answer."
"You thought about me?" the quiet young mage asked in amazement.
"Those stubborn, silver eyes of yours are hard to forget, even in the midst of battle."
And Rhonan smiled. He brushed a loose strand of honey blond hair from Ashton's face. Like the rest of the man, the blond hair was covered in the fine yellow dust. But that's just how the Court Mage was: always sporting some stain or another.
"Mage Ashton, although I am already in your debt, may I ask that you grant me one more favor?" Rhonan asked softly.
"You may ask for anything, my Pr—Rhonan," Ashton's reply was sincere.
Rhonan's jade-green gaze met the smaller man's bright silver.
"Grant me the favor of your kiss?"
Shyly the Court Mage nodded.