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Excerpt From Chapter 6

     Roan opened both doors to the Royal library with an expansive gesture, stepping out of their way to watch their reactions.

     Neither Cae nor Fern disappointed him. They stood there, just a few feet beyond the threshold and stared around them like a pair of backwoods country folk seeing the Capitol for the first time. There were a number of people here, but most seemed to be learned men and apprentices, scattered about the main room which was easily thirty feet long and nearly as wide, and swept upwards four tall stories. Balconies ringed the main room revealing floor to ceiling shelves every five feet, and from what Cae could see from the door, there were very few empty places on those shelves. The lower floor was filled with tables and chairs as well as more comfortable seating with ample lighting throughout. On the lower floor, she could see that the stacks of shelves ran deep, and were lost in the shadows. She could not begin to calculate how many volumes these chambers held.

     Cae turned back to Roan who was closing the doors quietly. “How do you find anything?”

     “There be a system, my lady,” he grinned. “The Master Librarian knows where everything be kept.” He swept his arm up and to the left, “Records are kept this way, though them I’d be advisin’ a guide for. That system be indecipherable to all but the Master and his worms. That way be fictional reading, upper floors bein’ histories and other treatments,” he added, gesturing to the right, “with reading nooks scattered throughout. Stairs be at the back and sides, and behind us here,” he gestured to two curling ironwork staircases on the wall they had come in through, which curled up towards the ceiling with stops at each of the gallery floors. “The Master be keeping a desk near the back there and bes available if ye’ve need, though any worm be for the askin’. Just donna bother the worms at copying. Sets them all in a bother.”

     “Worms?” she asked, confused.

    “Yeh, as in bookworms, what they call the Librarian’s apprentices,” he smiled, glancing at Fern. “If ye’ve no need of yer handmaid, I kin show her a place ta rest and what. She’s like ta git bored in here,” he said, eyeing her with a look of hope. “She’ll be within easy call, I promise. And there be no need of chaperone here. Too many worms.”

     When Fern gave her a shy, hopeful look, Cae nodded. “Learn what you can, Fern. We are in unfamiliar territory and I would have lady Petra’s advice corroborated.”

     Fern blushed, brushed a quick curtsey. “Thank you, my lady. I will put the time to good use.”

     Cae smiled as she turned to face the room full of books once more and missed the look of surprise on Fern’s face. She selected a young ‘worm’ loading a small stack of volumes onto a wooden basket suspended from the top floor by a series of ropes. She crossed to him and paused until he noticed her.

     He started as he turned to grab the ropes, immediately bowed. “My lady!” even his startled cry was soft and not apt to travel far. “How may this lowly worm be of service?”

     “I... my apologies. I was supposed to meet the prince here. I have a book he requested.”

     “Oh, of course, my lady.” He turned to point to the staircase winding up from the right side of the now-closed doors. “You’ll be... you’ll want,” he corrected with a blush, “that 'case there. Last I’ve seen of his highness was on the second floor about halfway down, near the medicals. Might be there still.”

     “My thanks, young man,” she smiled.

     He straightened up, startled at being thanked. “We lowly worms are here to serve, my lady. No thanks needed.”

     She tipped her head slightly, in the suggestion of a shrug, “But helpful young men should always be told when they are so.”

     He leaned forward just a hair, placing his emphasis with pride. “But there be no ‘young men’ here, my lady, for all your pardon. Just Nobles, the Master and us worms.”

     “Ah,” she nodded, now understanding. These young men took being called ‘worms’ with a great deal of pride. “And the less said...?” she asked.

     He beamed, nodding. At a jerk on the rope from an impatient compatriot on the third floor, he began hauling away. She paused to watch the wooden basket rise slowly to the gallery above before turning to the staircase he had indicated.

     She carefully climbed the iron spiral to the first opening on the second floor and began to slowly walk down the stacks. She inhaled deeply the scent of dust and paper and ink and leather bindings. She had never seen so many books at one time in her life. The library at Taluscliff held maybe two hundred books upon its shelves and thought that to be impressive. She had read every one of them, some of them many times. She felt she could remain on this one floor, on this one half of this library for the rest of her life and never read every book here.

     She stepped into one of the stacks, her eye drawn by a familiar volume. She reached up with her free hand to caress the spine. Taluscliff had a copy of this one, though far more well worn. Beside it were other volumes of herbal lore she had never seen. She longed to pull them down and look through them, but she was not sure if it was permitted and she had nowhere to set the tome safely locked in the box on her arm. She sighed. “This... this is the real treasure of the kingdom,” she breathed.

     “That is why they call it ‘a wealth of knowledge’,” came a voice.

     She looked down the end of the stack to see a golden head of cropped curls peering at her. It was a prince, but not the one she had expected. She dropped immediately into a deep curtsey, clutching the box (holding the book she had brought for the other prince) tightly to her. “Your Highness,” she breathed.

     He slowly walked the length of the long shelf, stopping just a foot from the hem of her skirts before he spoke again. “Though there are those of my ancestors which begrudged the expense that went to build it. Rise,” he said, almost as an afterthought.

     She obeyed but kept her head still demurely lowered, almost afraid to look into the eyes of the man who had refused, even at his mother’s behest, to speak to her. “Would Your Highness forgive me if I said they were fools?”

     He was silent such a long moment she began to fear she had spoken too freely. Then he chuckled softly. His laugh was rough, a little gravelled as if it did not get much exercise. “Why should I need to forgive the speaking of a truth?”

     She dared to glance up a little, catching sight of his handsome face without looking him in the eye. His face was nearly identical to that of his brother, though it seemed rougher. There was a small scar that vanished into his hairline near his temple and his eyes were a darker blue, their colour almost black in the dimmer light of the shelves.

     Then a quiet, short shrill from behind her made all colour leave her face. She turned, looked down to see the hooked blue beak and bright black eye peering at her worriedly from behind her skirts. “Oh, no,” she breathed. “Please forgive me, Your Highness. I did not intend for her to follow me,” she stammered, reached out her wrist for the bird as she dropped once more to a curtsey.

     He caught the hand before the bird could reach it, arresting her obeisance. She looked at him, found her eyes locked with his. She could not read his expression, whether it was anger or amusement, but his grip on her hand was firm. “You did not hear her flying behind you?”

     She caught her breath, feeling her cheeks flush. “She... she likely did not fly, Your Highness. She often runs along behind me at home. It was not her fault but mine. I neglected to order her to remain behind.” There was cold terror beginning to build in her belly.

     “Walking?” he frowned. “Odd behaviour for a falcon.”

     She gave the tiniest shake of her head, “Not for a gauvan, Your Highness,” she said in a small voice.

     “A gauvan?” he asked in an authoritative tone.

     “I... I have the dispensation at Stag’s Hall if Your Highness requires it. This will not happen again.”

     “If I wish to see it, I can have it pulled from the Records.” He drew her aside in an attempt to get a better look at the bird. To his consternation, the fowl followed her mistress, pressing herself between the bookshelf and her skirts.

     Released from his eyes, she looked down to the bird, realized what he was trying to do, as she followed her in a continuing circle. “You... you frighten her, Your Highness. If you wish to see her...” she braved, not daring to look up to his face again.

     He stopped, standing uncomfortably close to her, giving her little choice but to look up at him again. “And do I frighten her lady?” There was something dangerous in those eyes... and something else.

     She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, trying desperately to calm herself. “At this moment in time, under the current circumstances... aye, Your Highness,” she all but whispered. “I fear for the consequences of my error.”

     His voice, when it came, was unbelievably soft. “There is no shame in admitting fear.”

    She opened her eyes, saw something different in his, but still indecipherable. “Only in failing to face it,” she breathed. “Fear is what tells you when you are out of your depth.”

     “You tremble.”

     “Of course she’s trembling, Valan, you’ve scared the wits out of her,” snapped another voice.

     The moment shattered like glass and the prince dropped her hand and stepped away from her, hardening in an instant as he turned to face his brother.

     Balaran stood at the gallery end of the shelves, growling at his brother yet grinning at her. “I’d heard there was a white falcon following a Lady all the way to the library and I knew it had to be you.”

     Tempest crept out from behind her skirts to chirp inquisitively at Balaran. It was all Caelerys could do not to breathe a sigh of relief. “Truthfully, I did not intend to bring her into the library,” she responded. “I forgot to tell her not to follow.” She turned back to Prince Valan, though not meeting his eyes again. She couldn’t bear to see the coldness she could feel in them. “I will take her immediately from here and warn her not to come to the Citadel again.”

     “What? And break our dear sister’s heart?” Balaran chuckled. “Besides, I’ve seen a great many pretty birds carried as ornament by lesser ladies than you around here. It would be a shame to deny ourselves the company of one so beautiful and well behaved.”

     “The lady or the bird?” Valan sneered.

     He shrugged with a grin, “Either. Take her to shoulder and let us take ourselves to a table to view the treasure you’ve brought me.”

     She found herself blushing again even as she bent to take the bird to her wrist. “Jelma,” she chided the bird, mostly to help calm herself and perhaps salvage some of the situation. “How do we greet royalty?”

     The bird looked from her mistress to the two men and performed the bow she had made to the princess a few days back.

     Balaran smiled and bowed back to the bird. Valan just stood there with his unreadable, near scowl. Finally, he merely nodded cursorily to her and his brother, “I will leave you to your plans.” With that, he turned and stalked back the way he had come.

     Balaran only spared him a rolled eye before he offered his arm to Cae.