Chapter 1: A New Season

Kieran walked into Edouard's office and whispered a spell. Dozens of flies immediately flew out the open window. "Sorry, that spell fades pretty fast."

Without looking up from his paperwork, Edouard smiled as he replied, "But the brief respite from their presence is always welcome. It seems like there are more of them this summer."

"It's the heat." Kieran plopped into a chair. "The stands for the regatta are almost finished. We should just leave them up. This thing is turning into an annual event."

Edouard signed the paper in front of him and moved it to a stack on his right. It was a pretty big stack. "You're right. We probably should. I honestly didn't expect the races to be so popular."

"It's an excuse to eat and drink at the Crown's expense," Kieran answered with a shrug. Then he fixed a stern eye on Edouard. "And to gamble."

Edouard grinned. "I haven't bet on the races for a long time," he said. "You always make such a big deal out of it."

"You are the host," Kieran said firmly. "You shouldn't have favorites. And having Lida place the bets for you does not let you off the hook."

"You know about that?" Edouard managed to look sheepish, but Kieran's stern look didn't fade. "Oh, very well. I'll tell Lida she's on her on this year. Thank you, by the way, for supervising the construction of the stands. Celli is so busy this year with all her housing projects; I didn't want to ask her to do this, too."

"It's fine. You know I don't need much of an excuse to spend time near the water."

Edouard glared at him. "You went sailing, didn't you?" he demanded accusingly.

Kieran's answering smile carried not a trace of guilt. "It's best to observe the angle and height of the stands from the water to ensure everyone has a good view."

Edouard sat back and folded his arms. "That's so unfair! I'm stuck in this hot, fly-infested office and you're cruising around the lake, enjoying the cool breeze and sunshine."

"Take tomorrow afternoon off and come with me. You should inspect the stands anyway." He grinned as he spoke, knowing the offer was horribly tempting.

Edouard grimaced. "I wish I could! But I'm behind on this paperwork." He gestured at the stack on his left which, sadly, was still taller than the one on his right. "If I don't get through this in the next few days, Graelin will lock me in and make me take all my meals here until I'm finished."

"You need more bureaucrats," Kieran replied, his face turning serious. "With so many noble families expanding their holdings, the kingdom is getting bigger. You need more managers."

"I know." Edouard ran his fingers through his hair. "But when am I supposed to find the time to interview anyone? I'm not placing someone in charge of any part of this kingdom unless I've personally interviewed them."

"Promote people," Kieran answered promptly. "You have skilled staff running the districts here in White Shores. Why not see if any of them are interested in becoming a regional governor? They all have assistants they've been training, so there would already be someone to take over the district that you will have at least met a few times."

Edouard stared. He had simply never thought of that. While managing a region was somewhat different from managing a district in the city, there were many areas of overlap and the skill sets were essentially the same. "That's an amazingly good idea! No wonder I love you so much. I'll bring it up at my next district meeting. But for now…" He gazed morosely at the stack of unreviewed papers. "I'm stuck doing this."

"Then I'll stop bothering you." Kieran pushed to his feet and leaned across the desk to give Edouard a kiss. "I'll see you at dinner. I hope."

Edouard made a face and got back to work. It took some effort, but he managed to get through the entire stack by dinner time, but it left him feeling drained. "Kieran's right," he murmured as he deposited the completed stack on Graelin's unoccupied desk. "I need more bureaucrats." His bodyguards fell into step a pace behind him as he set off for the royal dining room. It was late enough that most people were already at dinner, so he saw few people on his way there. He was not surprised to find the entire family present, along with Moretz and Indrina, when he arrived. "Sorry to keep everyone waiting," he said as he walked in. "Long day."

"So Kieran told us," Celli replied. She placed a hand on his arm and kissed his cheek. "I agree with him that we need to staff up. The kingdom has expanded significantly in the past decade, both in area and population."

"But it's something of which you should both be proud," Moretz said, saluting them with his wine glass. "You have ushered in an era of prosperity not seen in centuries. Despite a rough beginning, you have given everyone reason to be thankful."

"Thank you, Moretz," Edouard answered. "I feel better about the long hours knowing that I'm actually having a positive effect." He went to his place at the table, causing everyone else to do the same. Servants came to hold the chairs for him and Celli, and once they were seated, did the same for Antonio, Lida and Indrina. Kieran and Moretz were allowed to seat themselves. They were served dinner that night instead of eating buffet style, so they talked comfortably while the servants brought out the courses.

"How is Tomas Alcasin adjusting to his role on the council?" Celli asked over the main course of roast beef with turnips.

"Very well, and I am quite pleased to have an Alcasin on my senior council again." Edouard paused to eat a bite of the tasty beef. "He's every bit as sharp as his mother and is already making valuable contributions. His son arrived at court last week and I believe his wife and daughters will be arriving later this week."

"Yes, that's right," Celli said. "I put them in the Blue Lily suite since it is the right size and has servant quarters fairly close by." She wrinkled her nose. "I've had six families importuning me to be allowed to move in there after Lady Beriton vacated it, but I've been holding onto it for the Alcasins. I was fairly certain you were planning to appoint him to the senior council."

"Thank you for that. It's an appropriate location for someone in his position."

"That's what I thought. And with five bedrooms, none of the children will have to share. His daughters are all older and I didn't think asking them to share would be the best situation." She smiled at Lida. "You've met the Alcasin girls before, I believe."

"Yes," Lida said. "The family visited court three years ago for the elder Lady Alcasin's retirement dinner. I don't remember much about the eldest and youngest daughters, except that they liked to shop. The middle sister was very sweet, though. I quite liked her. She was very well read."

Edouard abruptly had to stifle a yawn. He thought no one noticed, but Kieran immediately touched the back of his hand. "You look tired," he said softly.

"I am," Edouard acknowledged. "I think I should go straight to bed after dinner."

"I agree."

Of course, going straight to bed didn't necessarily mean going straight to sleep. Making love with Kieran was Edouard's favorite way of relieving all the stresses that built up in him during the day. An hour in Kieran's arms always left him comfortably relaxed and ready for sleep. He dozed off sprawled across Kieran's chest, the sound of Kieran's heartbeat a soft counterpoint to his own.

Edouard woke up quite early the next morning. This far into the summer, it got light fairly early, but it was still mostly dark outside when he opened his eyes. Kieran's eyes were still closed, but as soon as Edouard stirred, he spoke.

"You don't need to be up for another hour," he murmured.

Instead of answering, Edouard just rolled on top of him and planted a firm kiss on his lips.

Kieran wrapped his arms around Edouard. "Or we could do this," he chuckled.

They usually never had the chance to make love in the morning, but Edouard was always in a better mood all day when they did. Afterward, he remained lying on top of Kieran with his head cushioned in the hollow of Kieran's shoulder. "I'm going to have to make a decision about Antonio soon," he said with a sigh. "People are starting to inquire."

"You mean about his future wife?"

"Yes." Edouard sighed again. "And they aren't going to like my decision. Because the Ambrea family introduced powerful wizard blood into the royal line, I cannot accept any candidates from families that have ever produced a wizard. We need to dilute the wizard blood. That still leaves lots of options, but it immediately eliminates a whole bunch of local White Shores families. That's going to make a fair number of people quite unhappy. I also don't want to pick anyone who has never spent time at court. It worked out with Celli because of her intelligence and determination to succeed, but it took her a long time to win the trust of the local families, and it wasn't all just because she was born an Ambrea. Being an outsider worked against her, too."

"So," Kieran said slowly, "a young lady from a non-wizard family that either lives in White Shores or spends a lot of time at court."

"Yes."

Kieran rubbed a hand up and down Edouard's arm. "But that means Antony has likely already met the young lady to whom he will become betrothed."

"Very likely."

"He hasn't mentioned having strong feelings for anyone to me." Kieran said it carefully, but Edouard understood what he was getting at.

"Not everyone can be as lucky as I was with you," he said softly. "I want a good relationship for Antony, but I cannot promise him the kind of love I found with you."

"I know." Kieran kissed the top of Edouard's head. "You should ask Lida for recommendations. She knows the young ladies better than we do."

"I will." Edouard lifted his head and kissed Kieran on the lips. "We should get up. The servants will be here soon."

Kieran chuckled. "They're waiting outside the door. They don't like to come in when they hear us talking."

Edouard sat up. "Right." He slithered to the edge of the bed and called out. "Please come in!"

Immediately, half-a-dozen servants entered the room and began going about their morning routine, getting Edouard and Kieran bathed, dressed and ready for the day. Edouard had to hide a smile as he watched a very earnest young valet assist Kieran into his robes. Kieran had finally given up trying to dress himself in the morning. He was the king's consort, after all, making him royalty of a sort. The servants would have none of anyone royal dressing himself.

-o-o-o-o-o-

Jessri scrubbed her hands over her face. "I'm too tired to eat," she moaned. "And final exams don't start for two more weeks!"

"I'm never going to pass finals if the practice tests are this hard!" Collette exclaimed.

"I know!" Kip echoed. He was lying on the table on his folded arms with his eyes closed. "Nudge me when the food comes out."

Clancy promptly nudged him. "Here come the trays."

Kip pushed upright and rubbed his eyes. "She wanted us to write out forty-eight spells. Forty-eight! I don't even know forty-eight spells!"

"Yes, you do!" Clancy laughed. "We know hundreds. But writing them down is hard. Maybe that's why she's making us do it."

"I'm never going to pass."

"You better pass," Harvin put in, "or they'll make you repeat fourth year. Do you want to do this again?"

"Oh, lord no!" Kip shuddered. "I'm going back to my room after dinner and studying. I'm going to write down every single spell I know."

"Me, too!" Collette nodded vigorously.

Listening to his classmates made Vincent feel better. He was glad to know he was not the only one struggling. As easy as spell-casting was for him, explaining it in writing was far more complicated. It gave him great respect for the wizards who wrote the textbooks from which they occasionally studied, whenever Lady Micklin wasn't driving them to the edge of exhaustion with constant practice.

A young serving woman hurried up to their table with a crisp white envelope in her hand. "Forgive me for interrupting your dinner, Mister Mailar," she said, "but you've received a letter from her majesty."

Vincent was surprised. Normally, mail was just delivered to their rooms sometime between lunch and dinner. Getting something hand-delivered was quite unusual. He accepted the envelope, but when he looked at it, he understood why it had been brought to him immediately. It wasn't a personal letter from his mother, on which she would have just written his name and he might be the only one to recognize her writing. It was a formal letter, with the direction "To His Highness, Prince Vincent Mailar, from Her Royal Majesty, Queen Celli Mailar" written on it. His classmates threw him curious looks as he broke the seal and read the letter. He smiled hugely and stood up as soon as he was finished reading.

"Listen to this!" When everyone was looking at him, he cleared his throat and began to read aloud. "My dear Vincent, I am pleased to invite you and your classmates to be my personal guests at the royal regatta next month. I offer you the hospitality of the royal palace for five days, with the regatta taking place on the fourth day of your visit, so that you may enjoy a leisurely and relaxing stay as a reward for the completion of your final exams. I look forward to seeing you. With deepest affection, Queen Celli."

A long, stunned silence stretched out when he stopped and Vincent just grinned at them.

Jessri finally spoke up. "Did we all just get invited to the palace to see the regatta?"

Vincent nodded. "Yes, you did, as my mother's personal guests."

The table exploded with cries of excitement and amazement, drawing the eyes of everyone else in the room.

"I can't believe it!"

"We get to go to the royal palace!"

"I've always wanted to see the regatta!"

"This is so amazing!"

"Should we write thank you letters?"

Vincent sat down and started eating while the babble raged on around him. He had planned on going home after finals and had been thinking about inviting one or two people to go with him for a week or two, but to be able to take everyone was even better. Suddenly, everyone's exhaustion and worry were washed away. They had something to look forward to that took their minds off the tests they still faced. After a moment, Vincent put his hand close to his mouth and whispered, "My mother just invited my whole class to the palace to see the regatta. I'm still hoping you will come visit me at court for a few weeks, though." He glanced at Geran and saw Geran looking at him with a small smile. Vincent put his hand back to his mouth. "Come to my room after dinner?" Geran nodded slightly before looking away. Vincent smiled to himself and resumed eating. He really didn't need to ask. Geran spent most nights in Vincent's room anyway. They had been sharing Vincent's bed nearly every night for months. But the best part was that Geran was no longer shy about kissing Vincent when he wanted to kiss him. He just did it. But he was still very circumspect about touching Vincent in public. Vincent was less careful, but he tried to respect Geran's boundaries.

Vincent was already in bed when Geran arrived. He hadn't expected Geran to show up right away since everyone was studying for finals. He had spent over an hour after dinner writing out spells until the words had started blurring on the page and he was forced to admit he was too tired to continue. So he had crawled into bed to wait, hoping that he wouldn't fall asleep before Geran showed up.

Geran came into the room quietly and joined Vincent in bed without saying a word.

Vincent snuggled against his side. "I was afraid I'd fall asleep before you got here," he mumbled. "You should just come here to study next time."

"I don't want to interfere with your studies," Geran answered. "I remember Micklin's practice tests."

"I think she's trying to kill us," Vincent grumbled.

Geran laughed softly. "It will be worthwhile. If you try really hard on the practice tests, you'll breeze through her final exam."

"That assumes I live until then."

"You'll be fine." Geran kissed him warmly. "Go to sleep."

Vincent closed his eyes and willed the lights to go out. He fell asleep almost immediately.

-o-o-o-o-o-

Two stately carriages rattled through the vast marketplace, the sound of their wheels on the flagstones disappearing beneath the noise of the market. Sitting on the rear-facing seat of the lead carriage beside her younger sister Mariah, Eleanor Alcasin ran a hand over her braids. It was hot and humid; the very sort of weather that made her hair turn into a tangled mess of frizzy curls. She always wore her dark red hair tightly braided, with the braids coiled and pinned to her head with barrettes. She favored barrettes with semi-precious stones affixed to them. It was usually the only ornamentation she wore, because whenever she tried wearing a simple pendant or a plain gold brooch, her sisters would immediately begin teasing her and telling her that such adornments would not help the plainness of her features. She let her hand drop back into her lap, noting as she did so the plumpness of her fingers. Despite eating less than anyone else in her family, Eleanor tended to be plump, like her mother. Most of the time, it didn't bother her because she had no trouble keeping up with her sisters when they insisted on spending the entire day shopping. She assumed her figure was mainly a side-effect of the fact that her favorite pastime was reading. She loved history. She had studied the history of White Shores and the royal palace extensively and had spent countless hours poring over maps of the city and floor plans of the palace. She was desperately excited about moving to the palace. When her father, Tomas Alcasin, had been appointed to the king's senior council, something everyone in their extended family had taken as inevitable since her grandmother's retirement, it was a given that he would move his family into the royal palace. He and her older brother Tobias had already moved into the new suite the family would occupy and had been living there for a week. Now Eleanor, her mother and her two sisters were joining them, along with a few servants.

"Oh, Mother!" Mariah exclaimed abruptly, "can't we stop for just a minute? There are so many shops to explore!"

Amanda Alcasin sniffed disinterestedly. "There will be time enough for that later. I want to get settled first. And your father is waiting for us."

Mariah sat back with a pout. At fifteen, Mariah was by far the prettiest of the three, with thick dark hair and bright hazel eyes. Unlike Eleanor's thick tangles, Mariah's hair was silky smooth and flowed over her shoulders in dark waves. She enjoyed running her fingers through it, especially when she knew Eleanor was looking. In Eleanor's opinion, she was extremely spoiled, but neither of her parents seemed to see her behavior that way. Eleanor's older sister Evelyn, who had just turned twenty and was the oldest of the four siblings, resembled Mariah but with lighter hair and darker eyes. Oddly, she and Mariah were very close, despite Eleanor being much closer in age to Mariah at seventeen. Tobias was eighteen and shared Eleanor's passion for study. Growing up, she had spent more time with him than either of her sisters. Her hope, now that they would be living at court, was that she would not be obligated to spend much time with her sisters at all.

At length, their carriage arrived in the palace courtyard and Amanda heaved a sigh of relief. "At last," she declared loudly. "I hate traveling." As the carriage rocked to a halt, the footman opened the door and offered his hand so the lady could descend.

"Amanda!" Tomas Alcasin exclaimed. He hurried forward from where he had been waiting on the front steps to kiss his wife on the cheek. "You're here at last."

Tobias stepped forward to give his mother a hug. "Hello, Mother."

"You look well, Toby," Amanda replied affectionately.

Eleanor waited to allow Evelyn and Mariah to exit the carriage ahead of her. Technically, she should have preceded Mariah, being older, but Mariah always complained about being last and Eleanor didn't care. When she appeared, her father wrapped her in a warm hug.

"Welcome to court, Eleanor," Tomas murmured in her ear. "I daresay you're more excited about this than anyone."

Eleanor smiled. "I am. Our only other visit to the palace was so short, I hardly got to see anything."

"That's what I thought you'd say." Tomas turned back to his wife. "I think you'll like our lodgings, my dear. It's called the Blue Lily suite and it's well-positioned in the palace; close to the most important public spaces but not on any of the busier hallways. There is no space for the servants, but their quarters are not too far off." With that, he led the way into the palace. Evelyn and Mariah followed their parents and Tobias fell into step beside Eleanor.

"You know exactly where we're going, don't you?" Tobias asked with an amused smile.

Eleanor smiled back. "Yes, I do. It's a very good location. The king must really think a lot of Father. Have you met his majesty?"

"Yes," Tobias straightened up unconsciously. "Father introduced me right after I arrived. He was very nice to me."

Eleanor could not help staring at her sisters' backs, where their long, smooth tresses trailed down. "I hope I'll get to meet Princess Lida again. She was very kind to me when we were here before."

"You should. From what I've seen, the queen includes all the married ladies in her entourage and the princess takes all the younger women in hand. The ones who are too old for a governess, anyway," he added with a shrug.

As they passed the end of one hallway, Eleanor couldn't help staring longingly in that direction. She did not notice her father look over his shoulder at her. "I daresay you'll be headed that way the first chance you get, Eleanor," he said with a chuckle. "I assume you remember the way to the Royal Library."

Eleanor flushed. "Yes, of course."

Evelyn rolled her eyes. "More books?" she exclaimed with disgust. "How can there possibly be any books left that she hasn't read?"

"Well, what else is she to do?" Mariah said in a snide tone. "It's not like she'll need to make time for suitors with her plain looks."

Eleanor stiffened but did not respond. She was accustomed to her sisters' disparaging remarks. She was not surprised when her mother didn't say anything, but her father's response was unexpected.

"Such remarks are not appropriate here, Mariah," he said sternly. "You'll need to exhibit more ladylike behavior at court."

Mariah regarded Tomas with a shocked look and Eleanor had to hide her smile. Mariah was unused to being reprimanded. They continued in silence, entering a quiet third-floor hallway with attractive millwork on the walls. After passing a narrow cross-hall, Tomas stopped outside an ornate door embossed with blue painted lilies.

"Here we are," he declared proudly. He opened the door to reveal a well-appointed reception room with comfortable couches arranged around a low round table. There was a sideboard to the right of the door with a mirror above it. Wide double doors opposite the entrance stood open to reveal a sitting room with glass doors opening onto a balcony. Tomas gestured through the double doors. "This is the main parlor," he said. The room was larger than the reception room because it was much deeper and a bit wider. It was attractively furnished, including a large fireplace and seating area on the left, a second seating area in the middle, and a dining table large enough for the whole family on the right. A second door at the rear of the parlor on the far right gave access to a long hallway that had two doors on the left and a third at the end of the hall. Transoms above the doors allowed light into the hall, although there were sconces on the walls. Tomas stopped at the first room and opened the door, revealing a large bedroom. "There are three bedrooms on this hall," Tomas said, "and two more on the other side of the reception room. The room at the end of this hall is the largest and includes a small balcony. It is for me and your mother. I thought the other two rooms on this hall would be appropriate for Evelyn and Eleanor, and Mariah and Tobias could take the other two."

Mariah immediately protested. "I want to be close to Evelyn!" she exclaimed loudly. "You know that we like to dress together and share accessories!" Her voice had a sharp tone that Eleanor recognized. Mariah was going to have a tantrum until she got her way.

"Father, I don't mind taking one of the other rooms," she said quickly. "I'm sure mother would rather have Mariah close to her anyway." Mariah's eyes narrowed, but Eleanor's statement had the desired effect.

"That's very thoughtful of you, Eleanor," Amanda said. "Let's see these other rooms, though, before we decide."

She started back down the hall and Tomas joined her. Eleanor was not surprised when neither Evelyn nor Mariah followed them. They were already discussing which of them would have which room. Returning to the parlor, Amanda, Tomas, Eleanor and Tobias went back into the reception room. A door exited that room to the left of the main entrance, leading to another hall also lighted by transoms above two doors. There was a third door with no transom at the end of the hall.

Tobias stopped by the first door. "I've been using this room," he said, "but I'll move to the other if you prefer."

"That's all right," Eleanor began, but Amanda interrupted her.

"What is that door at the end of the hall?" she asked.

"It's the service entrance," Tomas answered.

Amanda frowned. "I don't think Mariah should be where she can leave the suite undetected. If you don't mind, Eleanor, I think I would prefer it if you took a room on this hall."

"I don't mind at all." Eleanor had to suppress a smile. "I'll take the room on the end."

"Very well." Amanda turned back toward the reception room. "I'm tired. I think I would like to lie down before dinner. But we will be dressing for dinner tonight. I hope our luggage arrives soon."

"I'm sure it's on the way," Tomas said. Their conversation faded as they walked away.

Tobias grinned at Eleanor. "Father never toured the whole suite, you know. He just counted the doors to make sure there were enough bedrooms." He followed Eleanor down the hall to the last room.

Eleanor opened the door and stepped into her new room with a smile. After the master bedroom claimed by her parents, this room was the largest of the remaining four bedrooms by a fair amount. It was large enough to have a seating area in front of the fireplace instead of just a chair and side table, along with a large bed, an armoire, and a dressing table with a mirror. It also boasted a balcony of its own, which none of the other three bedrooms had. "Is it my fault if I am familiar with the palace floor plan?" she said smugly. It was fun to be smug. She had so few opportunities. She glanced at Tobias. "But why didn't you take this room?"

"Because I figured Evelyn would claim it, since it's the nicest after our parents' room." Tobias shrugged. "And I don't really need a lot of space. But I'm glad you got it. Mariah will be furiously jealous when she finds out."

Eleanor rolled her eyes. "Well, I'm not going to tell her. And there's no reason for her to come to my room."

"She'll find out eventually."

"I know," Eleanor answered, "but by the time she does, we will all be unpacked and settled. And Mother already said she doesn't want Mariah on this hall. Evelyn might say something, but she is just as unlikely to come to my room as Mariah."

Sound in the hallway outside was followed by a knock on the door. Eleanor opened it to find one of their maids outside with three young men in palace livery. "The luggage is here, Miss," the maid said.

"Very good. I'll be staying in this room. My sisters are on the other side of the parlor with my parents."

"All right, Miss. If you don't mind, I'll have these gentlemen bring your trunks in first and then we'll take the rest through."

"That's fine." Eleanor retreated to the couch in front of the fireplace to get out of the way and Tobias returned to his room. Eleanor only had two trunks, because she didn't have the huge number of dresses that her sisters did. The servants left them close to the armoire and as soon as they were gone, she started unpacking. The armoire was more than big enough for her things. It had an open section on the left where she could hang her heavier dresses and her cloaks and several drawers on the right where she could fold away the lighter dresses, her undergarments and other accessories. Since her mother had said they would be dressing for dinner, she laid out one of her nicer dresses to put on later. When she was finished, she went out onto the balcony. The balcony had walls going all the way to the outer edge and a peaked roof to keep off the rain, making the space quite private. It had a finely carved chair with a table beside it that would make an excellent spot to sit and read when the weather was fine. Their suite overlooked a neatly manicured garden of flowering shrubs and small trees, with flagstone walkways winding through it and a few small benches. This wing of the palace faced toward the northeast and there was no wing directly opposite, so the rooms were bright without getting too much direct sunlight. It was, overall, a very nice suite quite suitable for a nobleman appointed to the king's senior council.

Eleanor gazed across the garden contentedly. "Living at court is going to be great."

-o-o-o-o-o-

Despite the closeness of their relationship, Geran still occasionally suffered from the feeling that he was acting above his station. When he had first befriended Vincent during Vincent's first year, he had been motivated by the sight of highborn students mistreating a peer the way they normally behaved toward lowborn students. It seemed incongruous, given Vincent's high rank. But after discovering that their powers meshed and how nice Vincent was, Geran had become completely enamored with him. And as they got older, that early crush had grown into a deep and abiding passion. Geran never considered telling Vincent how he felt, but Vincent nevertheless seemed to know, starting from the day he had said Geran could kiss him. That first sweet kiss had been Geran's undoing. Now, he could barely resist the attraction he felt, so he could almost never say no when Vincent invited Geran to sleep with him. The only thing that was saving him from giving in completely to helpless passion was the promise they had made to each other to refrain from deeper intimacy until after Geran graduated.

That day was still three years off and Geran was determined to honor that promise, in large part because he did not expect Vincent to follow through. Even as a royal wizard, Geran still knew that he would never be Vincent's equal. He was not the sort of person who should become the intimate partner of a member of the royal family. But he could never bring himself to say that to Vincent, because whenever he resolved to bring the subject up, Vincent would give him a look that would cause Geran to just kiss him instead. And once they started kissing, Geran's entire concentration was taken up with not losing control of his passion. But being with Vincent felt so right that Geran would sometimes forget that he was just a farmer's son and Vincent was a prince. So, he continued to sleep in Vincent's room, even on nights when Vincent had not specifically asked.

Sliding his fingers casually over the invisible bracelet of light on his wrist, he only half-listened to his classmates chattering over dinner. But then someone said his name and he looked up questioningly. "I'm sorry?"

"I asked if you were going to the regatta, too." Wendell, a dark-skinned boy who wore his curly brown hair in a single long braid down his back, was regarding Geran with a slight smile.

"The queen's invitation did not include me," Geran said.

"True, but that doesn't preclude Vincent from inviting you." Wendell came from a family of royal wizards, but both of his parents were originally common-born. As a first-generation highborn student, he had always been friendly with the common-born students like Geran.

"I would not want to intrude on a special time for the members of his class," Geran said.

"You're very thoughtful," Wendell said. "If you want, I can invite you. My parents are planning to go."

Another one of their classmates barked a laugh. "You think Chad would put up with that?" she said. "He gets jealous because we eat dinner with you and he's not even in our class."

Wendell grinned. "Chad won't mind. He knows Geran's not interested in me." He lifted his eyebrows at Geran and Geran shook his head with a slight smile.

"I don't need to see the regatta," Geran said. "I don't know anything about sailing."

"But everyone in the royal family loves sailing," Wendell went on. "If you want to completely win his heart, you need to show you share his interests."

Geran flushed, but it was the same girl who spoke before who answered. "You're an idiot, Wendell, if you think he hasn't already won Vincent's heart. All you have to do is see them together." She lifted her eyebrows at Geran and grinned. "Yeah, I know I'm embarrassing you, but it's obvious to me."

"Don't tease him, Kylie," Wendell retorted. "Some people are more private about their feelings than others."

"Oh, fine." Kylie stuck a spoonful of onion pie in her mouth, but she continued to grin as she chewed.

"Just ignore her," Wendell said to Geran.

Geran looked down at his plate and resumed eating. In truth, he was used to getting teased and it didn't really bother him that much. He was more concerned about Vincent getting teased because of him, but at least with his classmates, that never seemed to be the case. After dinner, he went straight to Vincent's room. Since it wasn't late yet, he knocked rather than just walking in.

"Come in," Vincent called.

Geran entered to find Vincent seated at his desk surrounded by papers. "Writing spells?"

"Yes," Vincent grumbled. "I don't understand why this is important."

"Imagine doing that when you barely know how to write," Geran chuckled. "I was in tears every night. Thankfully, Lady Micklin didn't care if the spelling was terrible. Do you mind if I practice?"

"No. I should finish a dozen or so more of these."

Geran settled into place in the middle of the room with his feet slightly apart and his weight balanced forward on his toes. The spell he needed to practice was difficult for him. The components of the spell were straightforward enough, but Geran had trouble binding the threads into a cohesive spell. After six straight failures, he flopped down on Vincent's bed with a noisy sigh. "I hate that spell!"

Vincent looked over his shoulder at him. "You should keep practicing. I have two more spells to write."

"That's all right. I'm tired." That wasn't really the reason why Geran wanted to stop. He just liked sitting there and watching Vincent.

Vincent finished his last spell and turned around in his seat. "Ready for bed?"

"Yes."

Vincent lifted a hand, held it in front of his face for a moment with his eyes closed and then waved it briefly from side to side. Then he grinned at Geran. "All protected!" Geran immediately stripped to his undergarments and crawled into bed, moving close to the wall. Vincent went to open the window wider. "It's hot tonight." He undressed to his underpants before sliding into bed next to Geran. "Do you know any cooling spells?"

"Yeah, but I don't have the ingredients. I wouldn't want to do it without a potion."

Vincent chuckled. "I could make fog."

"Not a good idea." Geran touched Vincent's arm. "Anyway, you feel cool."

Vincent wriggled closer and put his arms around Geran. "But your skin is warm."

"So stay on your side."

"It's fine." Vincent closed his eyes and his breathing slowed.

Geran stroked Vincent's hair. He loved holding Vincent while he slept. For a long time he just lay there, listening to Vincent breathe. And when he was sure the prince was asleep, he murmured, "I love you, Vincent."