Oblivious to her nana’s discomfort, Sylenea skipped along next to Jyss, Vaundryn’s hand in hers, as they walked back to the kitchens.
Sylenea stared at the long trestle tables, the massive hearth, and the rows of cabinets filled with pots and pans. Rich scents of cooking meats and baking breads filled the kitchen. Rubbing her tummy, Sylenea craned her neck upward as she looked at the high ceiling with thick wooden beams running across its length.
Her eyes saucered. “Our whole house would fit in here.”
“I could show you the rest of the castle, if you like,” Vaundryn said. “This is only a small part of it.”
Sylenea let go of his hand and clambered into a chair, swinging her legs and giggling when her feet danced above the floor.
Looking down at his now empty hand, Vaundryn frowned.
She patted the chair next to her, and Vaundryn slid into it with a controlled and practiced elegance.
Sylenea’s eyes widened as Jyss brought her and Vaundryn each a large slice of chocolate cake and a glass of milk.
“M’lord, my dear,” Jyss said as she set the cake in front of them.
“Thank you, Aunt Jyss,” Sylenea said between mouthfuls. “This is the most wonderful cake ever.”
“It’s very delicious,” Vaundryn agreed.
Sylenea devoured her cake and gulped down her milk. She fidgeted as Vaundryn cut neat bites before eating them. He saw her waiting and pushed his plate away.
As if that was the magic to spring her from her prison, Sylenea slid out of her chair. “Wanna go play?”
“Play?” Vaundryn asked.
“You know, games. What kind of games do you play here?”
“I don’t know that one. What else do you do for fun?”
“I have my lessons, there is the library, and I ride.”
“We could play seek and go hide, but this place is so big we’d spend the whole day searching. There’s a big oak tree out front.”
“You will not climb trees while you’re at Aunt Jyss’s,” Rhianna said, her voice sharp and brooking no argument.
“You climb trees?” Vaundryn asked.
Sylenea shrugged. “Why not? I like to see what’s up there, and sometimes you can find bird nests with baby birds.”
Jyss knelt beside Sylenea. “Promise me that you will not take Lord Vaundryn tree climbing. His father would be very upset.”
“All right, but can we go outside and play if we promise not to climb any trees?”
“M’lord?” Jyss asked as she looked at the boy.
Vaundryn lifted his shoulders. “I can show her the horses.”
“Horses? You have more than one?”
“She would like the stables if it pleases you to show them to her, m’lord,” Jyss said.
“Horses!” Sylenea squealed.
Jyss ruffled Sylenea’s copper curls. “Or I can take her down to my quarters if you have other obligations, m’lord.”
Sylenea crossed her arms over her chest. “You can’t promise horses and then not show them to me.”
“Sylenea,” Rhianna started.
The look of sadness on the girl’s face stabbed at Vaundryn. “I will show her the stables.”
Vaundryn slid out of his chair with a practiced grace and offered his arm to Sylenea.
Grabbing his hand, Sylenea waved to Rhianna and Jyss, then skipped along beside him as he led her back through the castle and out to the stables.
“You like horses?” Vaundryn asked as they walked over the emerald carpet of grass.
“Do you know how to ride?”
“Nana taught me on Solidar.”
Vaundryn frowned. “What’s a Solidar?”
“He’s a gentle creature, but so very strong. He pulls the cart and helps Papa in the fields.”
“A draft horse?”
Sylenea shrugged, but there was a fondness in her voice. “He’s Solidar. He’ll never win any races, but he’ll always get you there.”
“We have hunters, coursers, rounceys, and my father’s destrier.”
“A kind of horse. Father’s has a nasty temper.”
The entered the stables and the rich scent of fresh hay mingled with the earthy smell of horses. The walkways were swept clean, and grooms were tending to the coats of several of the animals. They stopped when Vaundryn entered, and their eyes fixed on the little girl holding his hand.
Sylenea’s eyes widened. “There are so many horses here. More than in my whole village.”
Vaundryn smiled, glad he could make her so happy. He walked up and down the rows with her, telling her about each horse. She listened, enrapt, talking and cooing at each of the animals.
“Who’s that?” she asked and pointed to a massive black stallion stabled well away from the other horses.
“Vlad,” Vaundryn said. “Nasty beast. He’ll only let my father ride him.”
Sylenea walked quietly through the dim stables and stopped outside of Vlad’s stall. The stallion snorted, kicked the stall wall behind him, and bared his teeth. She murmured to him, cooing and talking gibberish.
The destrier nudged forward, flicking his ears as he watched her. Sylenea vaulted up the side of the stable and seated herself on the high wall so she was level with the stallion’s head. She stroked his nose, and rather than biting her, Vlad nuzzled her hand and moved closer so she could stroke his ears.
“He’d like a green apple, if you have any. Not a red one. It has to be green.”
“My father always gives him green apples,” Vaundryn said as he motioned to one of the grooms.
“They’re his favorite,” Sylenea said as a groom handed her an apple.
She laid it in the palm of her hand and offered it to Vlad. He lipped it off her palm and nudged her. The gentle push almost sent her sprawling off the door.
“You don’t know your own strength, do you?” Sylenea laughed and patted his nose. “Now you be good, Vlad.”
Vaundryn watched her slide off the door and land beside him. Vlad nickered and butted the stall door.
“He really likes you,” Vaundryn said. “I didn’t think Vlad liked anyone.”
“He’s a big horse, and he learned he could get his way by throwing his weight around. He misses when he was ridden more, and he’s sad spending his days in the corner all by himself.”
“He’s there to protect the other horses,” Vaundryn said. “He can be very aggressive.”
She turned and looked at Vlad. “If you’d behave yourself, they’d let you back by the other horses. You might even get ridden more often.”
The horse snorted.
“You know you like being ridden. You just don’t want them to know.”
The horse nudged his stall door with his head.
“I’m not riding you until you can prove that you’ll behave yourself.”
Vlad bobbed his head
“What do you think, do you believe him?” Sylenea asked Vaundryn.
“You could never control him. Your feet wouldn’t even reach the stirrups.”
She frowned as she thought about that. “But it’s not about control. More a meshing of needs and wants.”
“There’s a pretty little mare over here,” Vaundryn said as he took her hand and led her away from the destrier. “If you can win over Vlad, you can win her over.”
Sylenea waved goodbye to Vlad and followed Vaundryn through the stables to a lovely grey mare. Within minutes, Sylenea had the mare eating apples and begging for ears to be scratched.
“You have a way with horses,” Vaundryn said as a groom saddled his gelding while another saddled the grey mare.
Sylenea beamed as a groom helped her up into the saddle. “Just have to know how to talk to them.”
Nudging his horse forward, Vaundryn led her out of the stables and across the wide fields surrounding the castle. He tried to set a quiet pace, but Sylenea raced past him as she gave her mare her head.
Vaundryn caught up to her, the exhilaration of the ride rushing through him and being amplified by Sylenea’s enthusiasm.
The breeze ruffled her copper curls and the sun sparkled in her emerald green eyes. “This is so much fun.”
“I suppose it is,” Vaundryn said. “Perhaps because there are two of us. It’s not this much fun to ride alone.”
“You’re not alone.”
Vaundryn glanced back at the stable hand following a safe distance behind them.
“Not what I meant.” She stroked her horse’s neck and tipped her face up to the sun. “It’s so much different to ride a horse that wants to run.”
“I can’t imagine a plow horse would have been much fun to ride.”
“Fun in a different way.” Sylenea glanced over at Vaundryn sitting erect and proper in his saddle. “Race you to the fence post!” she cried, and her mare shot off across the field.
“Hey!” Vaundryn laughed as he gave chase.
Their happiness floated across the fields, and soaked into the castle and its grounds.
Caenner looked up from his work and walked to the window in time to see his son ride past with a smile on his face as he galloped after a girl child.
Caenner pounded down the stairs and wheeled toward the kitchens. If anyone would know who the strange girl was, his housekeeper would. Servants scurried away from him, and he ignored them. Throwing open the kitchen door, he stormed in and loomed dark as night in the center of the room.
“Your Grace?” Jyss asked, forcing her voice not to quaver.
“There is a girl in my home that wasn’t here yesterday.”
Jyss paled. “Yes, Your Grace. She’s my niece.”
“Your niece?” Caenner echoed.
“My sister Rhianna Nightstar, Your Grace,” Jyss said as she motioned to the other woman. “She and her daughter have come to visit me on their way home.”
“Home from where?” Caenner asked as his eyes bored into Rhianna.
She swallowed and searched for her voice, but words failed her as she stared into the cold face of Duke Darkshield.
“The Temple of Thalia, Your Grace, up in Two Rivers,” Jyss said for her.
His eyes narrowed to slits, and menace poured from him. Despite the heat of the fire, the room felt cold and his breath puffed around him. “That’s the regional temple.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” Rhianna said, her words little more than a squeak.
“Why were you at Thalia’s temple? For what sin were you seeking redemption that a local priestess could not cleanse you?”
Rhianna gripped the table, but she met the duke’s stare. “No sin, Your Grace. I had thought perhaps Sylenea had the Calling.”
“The priestesses at your local temple would have known.”
Rhianna looked down at her feet. “So they told me she didn’t, but I didn’t believe them.”
“And the priestesses in Two Rivers confirmed that she didn’t have the calling,” Caenner said and started to pace. “So you’re bringing her back home.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” Rhianna whispered. “But they have agreed to teach her to heal.”
He stopped and faced her again. “They have?”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“Why did they agree to that if she doesn’t have the Calling?”
Rhianna swallowed the ice in her throat. “They called her a life mage, told me to inform my local lord and he would see to getting her properly trained.”
Caenner arched a brow black as a raven’s wing. “Your lord doesn’t already know about her?”
“No, Your Grace,” Rhianna said.
Caenner snorted. “He’s either an idiot or . . .” Realization dawned as Rhianna’s fear clawed through the death magic hanging in the air. Caenner reigned in his temper as he looked at the small woman clasping her hands on her lap. “You’ve been hiding her.”
Rhianna looked down at her intertwined fingers. “Yes, Your Grace.”
“Who is your lord?”
“Lord Emberfall, Your Grace.”
The name balled his fists. Emberfall had not reported a life mage in his lands. He’d reported far fewer mages in his lands than any other lord, and Caenner had been assisting in an investigation into the disparity. Mages were T’analear’s greatest asset, and whether through neglect or something more nefarious, Emberfall undermined the Empire by secreting budding mages.
But only those in the Mage’s Circle would know that, and Rhianna was definitely not in that circle.
“Why are you hiding her?”
Rhianna bit her lower lip and looked toward Jyss who nodded once. “I don’t know, Your Grace, but I never wanted him near her. Was afraid he’d take her from me if he knew.”
“Good instincts.” Caenner stopped pacing. “I want to meet young Sylenea.”
“Her and the young master went out to the stables,” Jyss said. “I can send for them.”
“No need,” Caenner said.
Rhianna smiled as she thought of her daughter. “Sylenea loves horses. Loves all animals, really. Always bringing home injured birds or whatnot and tending them. That’s why I was so sure Thalia had Called her. So sure.”
Caenner nodded once, turned on his heel, and left the two women as he strode out of the castle. His long steps ate the ground to stables, and he walked over to Vlad. As he approached the destrier, he felt it. The golden stirring of life magic. Untrained, undisciplined, but life magic so strong it pulsed against his death magic and sent shivers down his spine as if a thousand ants crawled along it.
“Where is Vaundryn?” Caenner demanded of the stable hands.
A groom slunk out of a stall, bits of hay clinging to him. “He took his gelding out, Your Grace.”
“I know that. Where did he go?”
“The young master didn’t say, Your Grace. Sent a stable hand along with him.”
“Send another to bring him back. When he returns, send Vaundryn to me.”
The groom bowed his head and Caenner strode back to his office. He paced the floor, clenching and unclenching his fists as he waited for his son.