Chapter 5

Dec. 22nd, 2008 09:11 pm
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* * *

Wednesday morning dawned cloudy, damp, and very, very early. Thorne pulled his cloak closer around him, yawning, as he made his way down from the palace, wondering curiously how a prince and his retinue traveled. Well, he'd find out soon enough...and until then, hope the tea he'd drunk hurriedly in his rooms would wake him.

When he reached the front gate of the palace grounds, he saw quickly that this would not be like the sort of journey he and Karesh made. The royal coach was waiting, hitched to a team of stamping oxen, and there were four more smaller coaches behind it, as well as four chariot escorts flanking the entire line. He lifted his eyebrows, watching as the palace guardsmen hurried about, loading boxes into three of the smaller coaches.

"Thorne!"

He spun when he heard his name, and turned to see Rivek behind him, hurrying forward with a covered silver platter. "What are you doing down here, my boy?" Rivek puffed as he slid past Thorne and opened the side door to the royal carriage, hoisting the platter inside. "Curious, are we?"

"Curiosity couldn't have me up this early," Thorne replied around another yawn. "The prince has asked me to accompany him."

"Really!" Rivek looked startled, but shrugged. "Well, far be it from me to doubt his highness," he said, then nodded toward the second coach. "That's the coach for his royal enclave," he said. "I imagine you'll be in there."

Thorne nodded, feeling a moment's disappointment, but knowing it for ridiculous. He hadn't honestly thought he'd be able to travel in Kaven's coach, after all. "I think he's doing it as a favor. We'll be passing through my village, and I've not seen my family for some time."

"Ah!" Rivek's face cleared, then, and he smiled. "Well, that makes some sense, then. Have a good trip." He nodded, then turned and headed back up the hill toward the palace.

"Thank you," Thorne called after him, before pulling his cloak tight again. He knew he should climb up into the coach--it'd be warmer and less damp, for one thing--but he was hoping to at least get to say good morning to Kaven. "I'm pathetic," he mumbled, twitching his tail and looking back up toward the palace.

In all honesty, he knew it was probably a good thing he wouldn't be riding with Kaven. After the dreams he'd had the last couple nights, he knew there was little chance he'd be able to be in that close proximity with the prince without blushing fit to match his hair and his tail--dreams where Kaven drew him into his arms, stroked his back and murmured into his ear; dreams where Thorne pushed himself over the prince's prone body and gazed down at him, watching those eyes sparkle and that smile appear just for him. Dreams of pressing his lips to Kaven's, feeling the prince respond, feeling their tails beginning to wind together as their arms explored and their tongues dueled.

He swallowed, realizing he was flushing now, and shook himself, turning away from the palace and heading to the coach behind the royal coach, sliding inside and drawing his tail up beneath him, giving a brief nod to Tash when he realized the page was also in the coach. "Hullo," he said, trying to smile.

Tash smiled shyly at him and waved, looking hopefully to Thorne's hip, where his lyre usually hung.

Thorne did smile at that, and slipped the carefully wrapped instrument off his back. "I'll play for you later, lad, when the fog's burned off. But I know a few stories that don't need music...I think we can keep ourselves entertained."

Tash brightened at that, and Thorne settled into a tale about the nagi princess who ran away and got lost in the forest because she didn't want to marry the prince her father had chosen, since she'd never met him. While crying by a pool of crystal water, she made a wish to the Lady of the Forest to meet her true love, and was soon rescued by a handsome young hunter who turned out to be the prince in disguise.

"And so when she went to the ball, and her prince slid from the shadows," Thorne said, leaning closer and lowering his voice conspiratorially, "imagine her shock and great joy when the prince was her mysterious hunter from the woods!"

Tash's face lit up, his tail squirming a little against the floor of the carriage. "So it really was like magic!" the child breathed. "The prince was her true love all along!"

Thorne sat back, casting a glance out the curtains of the carriage--then paused when he saw Kaven standing next to the carriage, a deep red cloak pulled around his shoulders, hood draped over his long white hair. The prince was gazing back up the hill toward the palace, and seemed distracted; as Thorne watched, Kaven's shoulders slumped ever so slightly, and he turned away, disappearing into the royal coach.

"Yeah," he said softly. "It was the prince all along." He looked out, at the sky, and decided it was as dry as it was going to get. "And how about a song, now?" he asked, unwrapping the lyre, tuning it carefully. "I'm glad you're along, Tash, I wasn't sure who I'd get to talk to," he added, making the boy giggle again.

His lady ready, he struck a chord, and as the carriages began to move, he settled into a traveling song, about a troupe of traveling players and their adventures. It was very silly, with a chorus made for singing along, and soon Tash's high, clear voice joined his.

* * *

Breakfast and lunch were both eaten in the coach, produced from a bag next to Tash, and they didn't stop until near dusk. The carriages pulled in at a large estate, and Thorne peered out of the coach curiously, eyebrows going up. This was the home of the Lady Desidia, if he recalled correctly--he and Karesh had been called upon by her more than once, and she was a great fan of long, rambling epics. Wondering if she would recognize him, and if he would have the chance to perform again, he slid back into the coach to gather his belongings. "Guess we're staying here for the night," he said to Tash, shrugging.

Tash bit his lip, looking nervous, but nodded, sliding down from the carriage after Thorne, stretching and covering his mouth quickly when he yawned. Thorne smiled, ruffling the boy's hair, and waited as the drivers and the rest of the travelers began to climb down from their own rides. It had finally stopped raining, but it had been misty all day, and Thorne noted with a wince that the guards in their chariots were well and thoroughly soaked, despite their cloaks. Hopefully the Lady Desidia would be good enough to offer them all warm baths; he wasn't certain how it worked when a member of the royalty went calling upon his nobles, but she had never been remiss in her hospitality when he and Karesh visited. At least, never deliberately; she was getting a little senile, and did occasionally forget things, but a gentle nudge would remind her, and she would always make up for it and then some. Thorne smiled, recalling the time she'd forgotten to offer them breakfast, but when his stomach had growled, rather loudly, during one of his songs, she'd called for enough for a banquet, and had fed them brunch, lunch, tea, and an enormous dinner as well. He'd barely been able to hoist himself into his bed that night, he'd been so full of good things.

He was waiting for the carriages to finish unloading, when suddenly from behind him he heard a surprised voice: "Thorne?"

He turned, and saw Kaven in the doorway of the royal carriage, eyebrows up and eyes wide with surprise.

Wondering why Kaven looked almost as if he'd seen a ghost, Thorne nodded, offering him a smile. "My lord," he acknowledged, knowing better than to call Kaven by name in front of so many. "Good evening..."

Kaven stared at him, then at the coach Thorne had just climbed out of. "You were...you were in there...?"

Thorne nodded. "Well...yes. Rivek told me it's where I was supposed to be..."

Kaven's face cleared a little. "Oh," he said. Then, mouth quirking a little, he said, "I thought you'd decided not to come along."

Remembering the way Kaven's shoulders had suddenly slumped, that morning, Thorne felt a small thread of pleased warmth run through him. "No, no of course not. I just came down early and it was cold, so once I knew which coach I was supposed to be in...I went in to warm up. I'm sorry, I should've waited to see you..."

Kaven waved his hand. "No, no," he said. "If you were cold, you didn't need to wait, but...well, I'd rather hoped you'd...that you'd travel with me." He blushed. "I mean, you are traveling with me, but I thought you'd travel in the royal carriage. I guess Rivek didn't know..."

Thorne blushed. "Oh. I'd, um, hoped that, too, but I didn't want to assume..."

Kaven looked at the coach they'd just slipped out of, then at Thorne and Tash. "Is it just you two in there?"

Thorne nodded. "It is. More room than we really needed, wasn't it, Tash?" he asked, causing the boy to grin shyly and nod. Thorne thought he knew what Kaven was considering, and it made him hide a smile. And like the prince even more, if that was possible.

Kaven smiled at Tash. "You think you two had more room than you needed," he said, lifting his eyebrows and putting his hands on his hips. "You should see it in that monstrous thing!" He jerked his head back toward the royal carriage. "Tell you what," he said. "How about tomorrow, we all ride in there together, and the guards can take turns using your carriage so they don't have to be in the rain all day. What do you think?"

Tash's eyes went big and round and he nodded eagerly, making Thorne grin openly. "I think we would be happy to accept your highness's generous offer," he replied with a wink. "And as I was teaching Tash fingering today, I think we can teach you tomorrow, and see which of you learns faster."

Kaven made a face. "He has a head start," he complained. "That's not really fair!"

Tash giggled softly, as a guard slid up to them. "Your highness, if you'd like to come inside, out of the rain, everything is ready for you..."

Kaven nodded to him. "Thank you," he said, then turned back to Tash and Thorne. "Well? Shall we?"

They nodded, and followed the guard back toward the manor, the drivers and guards heading around the side of the house toward the servant's quarters. Tash had begun heading that direction too, but Kaven, seeing him about to slip off, dropped back a little and rested a hand casually on the boy's shoulder, engaging him in a conversation about what he'd learned to do on the lyre so far, and Tash quickly forgot he was supposed to be with the other serving staff in his eagerness to relate the story.

When they reached the house, one of the handmaids came forward quickly and took their cloaks, followed by a nagi Thorne thought he recognized as the head of the household staff. She bowed low to Kaven, then cast sidelong glances at Tash and Thorne, before speaking. "My prince," she said, "My Lady Desidia is honored to have you here in her humble home. She regrets she is unable to greet you herself, but a sickness has kept her constrained to her bed. However, she has entrusted your care to me, and if it pleases your highness, there is a bath and a hot dinner waiting for you."

Kaven bowed back politely, though not as deeply as the serving woman had, and said, "I would be much obliged to your lady, and it grieves me to learn she is unwell. Is there anything I can do for her to aid her recovery?"

Thorne's eyebrows went up a little, amazed at the change that overcame Kaven. His years of royal training and etiquette slid over him as easily as a cloak, and he seemed almost a different person, shoulders and back stiff and straight, face somber. Even his voice was different--smoother, somehow. Silky.

"I'm afraid not," the maid said, bowing again, and Thorne wondered how they didn't get dizzy, bowing all the time like that. "Her healer advises her simply to rest." She shot glances at Thorne and Tash again, then cleared her throat slightly. "Sire, if it pleases you, I can have Serina show your serving lads to the servant's quarters?"

Kaven glanced at Thorne and Tash, then shook his head. "I would rather they be kept near," he said. "They have been with me for many years, and are well acquainted with my whims and desires. Thank you."

Her lip curled almost imperceptibly, but she hid it in another deep bow. "Yes, sire," she murmured. "Follow me."

Thorne heard Tash gulp, and he reached over to squeeze the lad's shoulder as they followed Kaven and the maid through the house. They were led to quarters far richer than those Thorne had stayed in before in his visits, though the maid apologized for the poorness of the accommodations.

There was a single bath and a table setting for one, though the amount of food on the table would easily fill the three of them, and perhaps the guards as well. Thorne looked around in open interest, admiring the tapestries on the wall, glad he didn't have to do the dance of welcome himself. "Look, Tash," he said softly, pointing up to a weaving of a nagi by a stream. "There's the lady in the woods, looking for her prince..."

"Is there anything else his highness requires?" the maid interrupted, tossing Thorne a pointed glare.

Kaven glanced around the room, then nodded. "Yes," he said, "if it's not too much strain on your staff to have two more baths sent up, I would appreciate it."

The maid looked taken aback, but to her credit, hid it well. "I...of course it isn't, sire," she said after a moment, bowing low. "Anything your majesty requires will be done." She bowed again, then slid backwards out of the room, pulling the door shut after her.

Kaven relaxed visibly once she was gone, bringing his hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose.

Thorne snorted softly, shaking his head. "She hasn't changed a bit. Bullies anyone who will stand for it..." He squeezed Tash's shoulder again, nudging the lad gently toward the table. "I imagine Lady Desidia is simply getting too old to keep her fully in line."

"Perhaps," Kaven said. "Listen, I'm going to go to the servant's quarters and make sure she's set up adequate accommodations for the guards and the drivers. You two dig in, all right?"

"That's a good idea," Thorne said, again impressed by Kaven, now that he was out of his shell. He spared a moment to regret he wouldn't see the maid's face as the prince told her exactly what he thought of her, but decided it was just as well. Laughing wouldn't ease the tension, after all. "We'll try to make sure and leave you something," he added with a slight smile, nodding at the groaning table.

Kaven looked up at him, then grinned. He glanced at Tash, and said, "You'll keep an eye on him for me, won't you?"

Tash giggled and nodded. "I'll do my best, highness." He hesitated, then, before he smiled. "But he's lots bigger'n me!"

Thorne--who was still, even after reaching full growth, very small for a naga--grinned widely at this. "Better hurry back, Kaven," he advised with a wink.

Kaven chuckled, and nodded, saluting before sliding out of the room.

Tash wriggled, looking around. "He let you call him Kaven, too! Lyra said he did, but we didn't believe her. He's really nice, isn't he?"

Thorne nodded, smiling softly as he looked after Kaven, before turning and sliding to the table. "He really is, Tash. We're lucky to have someone like that to serve."

"I like him," Tash announced, following and sitting down, eyes widening at the array of food in front of them. "Do we really get to eat this? It's court food!"

"We really do," Thorne assured him, taking a plate of fancy rolls and emptying them from it, handing it to Tash. "There really is plenty, so eat as much as you like. It should all be good, too, I've performed here before, and the cook's almost as good as Gimma."

Tash grinned, wriggling again, before taking some of everything, until his plate was very full. He took the goblet of cider Thorne poured for him and settled down, eating quickly and happily.

Thorne himself waited, nibbling at a roll, wanting to keep Kaven company in the meal when he returned.

Still, he'd almost given in to his stomach's urging before Kaven finally returned, looking harried. "That," he announced, sliding around the table and flopping back against one of the reclining cushions dramatically, "was way more overseeing than I hoped I'd have to do."

"She tried to put my master and me into the stables, the first time we stayed here, because we were used to camping," Thorne offered, pouring tea for Kaven and offering him the mug.

Kaven accepted with a grateful nod, rolling his eyes. "It wasn't that bad, thankfully," he said, "But she had ten drivers and four guards in a room smaller than this one, with three baths and five loaves of bread."

Thorne hissed, and even Tash looked surprised. "I wish I could say I was surprised. Lady Desidia is a good hostess, but her mind is going, and I'm afraid it's being taken advantage of...Hopefully our other stops are more accommodating." He dished up a plate for himself, refilling Kaven's mug. He was tempted to fill a plate for the prince, as well, but didn't want to presume too much.

Kaven simply sighed. "I'll have to have a word with the Lady before we go," he said softly. "I don't want the maid to lose her position, but if she's making others miserable..." he shook his head. "But enough of that. I got them moved to guest quarters, they each have a bath, and there should be plenty of food. Torak is supposed to inform me of any more ill treatment in the morning, and the maid knows it, so they should be treated well enough." He settled back, still sipping at his tea, looking lost in thought.

He already knows you're presumptuous, Thorne reminded himself, when Kaven made no move for the food. He sighed, and filled another plate, handing it to Kaven with a raised eyebrow. "I hope it will do some good. She was simply forgetful, when I was here last, but that was at least a year ago. And here, we left you plenty, eat something before they come in with the new baths."

Kaven blinked, looking surprised, then reached forward and accepted the plate with a nod. "Thorne, I...I thought we might look in on her ladyship later this evening, after we clean up," he said. "If she's ill, perhaps it would please her to hear a song or two."

Thorne smiled. "I think that's a wonderful idea. She likes long, detailed ballads and I know enough of those." He had one in mind, too, that he'd been thinking of earlier in the day. A tale of a male pair who'd ruled Ophidia a few hundred years before, he knew Lady Desidia loved it. And the hero reminded him a bit of Kaven. "Tash, could you ring down and let them know the prince has returned and they can send the baths up now?" he asked, and the page jumped up from where he'd been staring sleepily at the fire.

"Yes, sir." He yawned, then went to do as he was told, speaking very correctly to the handmaiden who answered the bell, before returning to the cushions and sinking down again. "Your highness, did you really tell Lyra she could call you..." He blushed, deeply, and trailed off.

"Kaven?" Kaven supplied, smiling. "Yes, I could. You may call me Kaven too, if you wish. I have to say I greatly prefer it to 'your highness.'"

"Wow," Tash murmured, clearly impressed. "But...but...you're a prince, and I'm just a page."

"Yeah, but you know what?" Kaven said, turning to smile at Thorne. "A few years ago, he was just a farmboy, and I was just a soldier. But we're the same now as we were then, right?"

Tash was silent for a bit, working this out. "But...Well...It must be all right if you say it is. But it still seems strange to me," he admitted, blushing.

"It is, at first, Tash," Thorne offered. "But you get used to it. Kaven's another naga, too, even if he has a bigger job to do than we do. And it makes it easier if he has friends who don't care what his job is when he's not doing it."

"Oh!" Tash grinned and turned back to Kaven. "Okay. I can be your friend, I'm a good friend and I like you. You're nice."

Kaven blushed a little, but nodded gratefully. "Thank you," he said. "I'm glad to call you my friend."

Tash grinned again, before yawning once more, relaxing enough to curl around himself and snuggle into a cushion. Thorne leaned back himself, stretching his tail out as he pushed his half-empty plate aside, watching Kaven. And wishing.

Kaven, who'd been watching Tash rapidly falling asleep with a soft smile on his face, looked up and caught Thorne's eye, then straightened. "What?" he asked, looking a little wary.

Thorne blushed, and shook his head. "Nothing. Just...I didn't realize you'd be so good with children. They really like you."

Kaven looked surprised, but pleased, turning back to Tash and brushing the child's hair from his brow. "Yeah?" he murmured.

"Yeah," Thorne agreed, smiling when Tash shifted, scooting closer to Kaven. "You must've loved having the younglings all over you with my family..."

Kaven laughed, softly. "Yeah, I did. It's just...well, they're not as worried about rules and formality. Kids, I mean, not your family," he added quickly. "Though your family isn't as worried about rules and formality, either. Not saying they're disorderly--they're polite, and everything--but they're not stuffy like some of the windbags that visit the palace, and..." he broke off, and shook his head, chuckling again. "Wow. And I'm a renowned orator? it's amazing I haven't caused wars, the way my tongue can fumble." He looked up at Thorne, sheepish, and shrugged. "I guess I just like kids," he said at last.

Thorne giggled softly. "I'm the last person to be offended by some tongue-fumbling, believe me. I do it often enough myself. And I know what you mean, now that I've been around the kingdom. My family cares more for who you are than what you were born into. I didn't realize how lucky I was to grow up that way until lately..."

Kaven nodded, then glanced at Thorne's plate. "Did you get enough to eat?"

"Mmhmm. Most of this is too rich for me," Thorne admitted, shifting a little. He grinned, then. "And I'm smaller than you, I don't need as much."

Kaven shrugged, but grinned. "Fair enough," he said. "Would you like to start a bath? Tash and I can wait for them to bring the other two..." he waved at the large tub behind them, which was steaming and scented faintly with rose oils.

Thorne blushed, slightly, and ducked his face to hide it. "Why don't I get Tash done first? He's already falling asleep, and it'll let him get there faster."

"M'not asleep," Tash mumbled, burrowing half into the cushions, and half into Kaven's side.

Kaven looked surprised, but grinned. "You're not, huh?" he said. "Then maybe you can tell me, if you're not asleep, why your eyes are closed, and you're almost in my lap?"

Tash's eyes popped open and he pushed himself up, blushing. "I...um..."

Thorne laughed softly. "Come on, lad, let's get you clean and then you can go back to not being asleep."

Tash looked at the large basin--almost a swimming pool, for a naga his size--then looked back up at Thorne, doubtful. "Shouldn't...shouldn't I wait for my bath to get here?" he whispered, casting a glance at Kaven.

Kaven waved his hand. "Enjoy it, lad," he said. "If we wait until I'm ready for it, it'll be cold, anyway."

"He's determined to wait," Thorne said, shrugging at Tash. "We might as well take advantage of it. Come on." He stretched himself, and got up, helping Tash into the tub, teasing him lightly as he got himself clean, and pretending to be outraged when he got splashed.

Soon enough, Tash was clean, and Thorne helped him back out, then used a wire brush on the younger naga's scales after they'd dried him. When they were done, Tash's tail was gleaming, the brown-red scales brighter than they'd appeared before, and the child was grinning broadly up at him. "There," he said. "Now you're truly a prince's page."

"Let's see," Kaven said, moving over from the table and studying Tash critically. Finally, he nodded approval. "Cleans up well," he said, giving Tash a thumbs up. "Now. Would you like to come back and rest on the cushions? I imagine Thorne might be willing to sing us a song while we're waiting for our baths."

"I think I could be persuaded," Thorne agreed with a smile, drying himself off and settling down beside Tash, pulling the boy in close against his side. "Especially if you'll help me. Do you remember the song we sang this morning?"

Tash giggled softy, curling up happily. "Yes."

"Good." Thorne picked up his lyre, and they started in, singing the silly song again. But about halfway through, Tash's voice slowed, and dropped out, and by the time Thorne finished, the lad was a heavy weight against his side.

Kaven was smiling at them, eyes half-lidded; when the last note faded, he pushed himself up and slid forward, gathering the sleeping page in his arms and carrying him over to the large bed, settling him down gently. He paused over the sleeping figure, studying him, then tugged the blankets up around his shoulders before moving back to the table again. "He's a good lad," he said to Thorne, leaning one elbow against the tabletop.

Thorne nodded, still smiling from watching Kaven with the boy. "He is. Bright, too, and very quick. I was glad of his company in the coach..." He flushed, then, looking down at his lyre. He would've been gladder of Kaven's, and couldn't believe it could've been his.

"Well," Kaven said decisively, "I'll be glad to have both of you in the coach tomorrow. Should be more interesting than talking to myself." He winked at Thorne, voice gently teasing. "When I talk to myself, I find I don't have quite as interesting a conversation as you seem to have when you talk to yourself."

Thorne blushed again, but laughed. "I could stand for my own to be less interesting sometimes..."

Just then there was a knock, and Thorne set his lyre aside to answer it, glad to see the fresh baths arriving. The next few minutes were a blur of set-up, before the two of them were left alone once more, with two steaming tubs.

Kaven didn't hesitate, but began divesting himself of his various adornments, pulling off his cloak and releasing his hair from its wrap so it fell freely over his back in shimmering white sheets. He unclasped the belt at his waist, setting aside the loin plate and hip cloth, then unclasped the gold collar about his neck before sliding over the edge of the tub nearest him, settling in with a soft groan. "I don't know what it is about traveling that wears you down," he said, eyes closing as he relaxed into the water, "but Lady, it does."

Thorne suddenly realized he'd been staring, but thankfully Kaven hadn't seemed to notice. He pulled off his own loin plate and hip cloth, slipping gratefully into his bath. "It does. I hadn't expected it to as much--my master and I didn't have a coach, just our tails--but riding in one all day is almost as bad..."

Kaven glanced over at him, lifting one eyelid halfway and smiling sleepily. "I think it's the bumping in the carriages, myself," he said, stretching, arching back so his throat flexed visibly when he swallowed. "I certainly don't mind stopping, at any rate. When I went to visit your family I just took a chariot, and at least when I was the one driving it didn't seem so bad..." He shrugged, then tilted his head back, letting his hair get wet up to his hairline and his eyes drift closed again.

Thorne swallowed hard, watching Kaven, wondering if the prince had any idea of how attractive he was, the effect he was having on the bard. Shaking himself slightly, Thorne dunked his head under the water, trying not to think about it as he ran fingers back through his thick hair, before coming back up again, sighing. "I have to say, it's much more comfortable traveling with you. I could get used to this..."

"Oh?" Kaven asked, without opening his eyes.

"Hot baths," Thorne replied, stretching luxuriously. "Good meals, decent rooms...I've spent a lot of the past seven years huddled under a tree hoping my instruments would stay dry in weather like this. And you're good company, of course," he added, as if it was an afterthought, grinning as he began to wash his hair.

"Nice save," Kaven murmured, his lips curving into a smile when Thorne chuckled. Then, eyes opening, the prince sat up, reaching for the bar of soap. "Actually, I'm glad to hear you say that," he said mildly. "My new duties to the border camps will mean I travel a lot, and I was going to offer you a permanent spot in the entourage. You know...if you're interested." He didn't look up, and his voice was very casual, but there was a stiffness to his movements as he lathered the soap between his hands and began massaging it into his hair.

Thorne smiled slowly, forgetting to move his hands until soap drifted into his eyes. "Ow!" He grumbled, ducking under the water and rinsing his hair clean again, coming back up with a sheepish grin. "And by that I mean yes, of course I am. I'll go where you go, as often as you want me to."

Kaven grinned. "All right," he said, before dunking his own hair to rinse it.

They finished their baths in silence, sliding out reluctantly (at least, reluctantly on Thorne's part, though from the expression on Kaven's face he was pretty sure the Prince wasn't too excited about ending his soak either) and drying quickly. Thorne wondered, as he ran the towel roughly through his hair, what Kaven would do about his--there was no way it would dry fast enough for them to visit the Lady Desidia before midnight--but his question was quickly answered as Kaven, after brushing through the locks, quickly braided them and slipped his golden coiled snake onto the end to hold it into place.

They dressed in silence to avoid waking Tash, slipping on their finery and cloaks. Kaven, when he caught Thorne eying his rather muddy cloak in dismay, chuckled and tossed him one of his own--a richly woven velvet blue with gold clasps and a jeweled broach at the throat. "Here," he said. "You pack like a traveling bard, but for once, packing like royalty comes in handy. I've got about a million of these."

Thorne took it, touching the soft fabric with a soft smile. "Yet another reason to be glad I'm traveling with you. You'll keep me from looking a disgrace..." he said, blushing as he put it on and picked up his lyre. He ran a hand back through his thick hair, trying to dry it quicker, before shrugging slightly. "Shall we?"

"No time like the present," he said, shrugging, and slithered through the door, Throne following close behind him.

When they reached the Lady Desidia's bedchambers, they were allowed in by a handmaiden who bowed quickly at the sight of the prince. The lady herself was coiled in bed, her once-bright coppery scales now duller, but when she caught sight of Kaven and Thorne, her eyes lit up.

"Boys!" she said, her feeble voice no less joyful for the fact that she clearly had no idea who they were.

"My Lady," Kaven murmured, bowing low and sliding forward to kiss her weathered old hand. "Please forgive our intrusion, and accept my thanks for your gracious provisions."

"Oh, dear," Lady Desidia murmured, one hand fluttering to her breast as she beamed up at Kaven. "Dear boy, you are more than welcome in my home. What is your name?"

Thorne bit back a giggle, and Kaven shot him a glance before smiling down at their host. "My name is Kaven, my lady," he said.

"The prince of the kingdom, ma'am," the handmaiden murmured, leaning in from her position on the other side of the bed, careful not to meet Kaven's eyes.

"Oh! Dear, dear, you've gotten so big!" Desidia clapped her hands together. "You look so much like your mother! Is she well? Did she come with you?"

Thorne's smile faded, and he glanced at Kaven, worried, but Kaven simply smiled. "I'm afraid she couldn't make it, madam," he said gently. "However, I have brought someone else with me. I want you to meet a good friend of mine, and a talented bard as well." He extended a hand, gesturing Thorne forward, and said, "My Lady, this is Thorne."

Thorne bowed deeply for her, as much to hide his blush at Kaven's praise as to show her respect. He was not surprised when there was no hint of recognition in her eyes. "We had thought, my lady, that you might enjoy a song or two..."

Her eyes grew even brighter, and the tip of her coiled tail stirred a little. "Oh, yes, lovely, just lovely!" she said, looking around. "Did you bring a bard?"

"I am a bard, my lady," Thorne replied gently, holding up his lyre, feeling a moment's deep sorrow for her. Though she'd been declining when last he and Karesh had stayed, it had been nothing to this, and he missed the sharp awareness behind her eyes he could remember from his earliest visits.

"Oh, how wonderful," she said softly. "Please, please play something, yes! It's been so long since we've had a tale, hasn't it, dear?" she turned to the handmaiden, who blushed fiercely at being acknowledged in front of the prince but nodded nonetheless.

"It has, ma'am."

Thorne smiled gently. "My lady, I thought you might enjoy the ballad of Resha and Lanae."

Her eyes grew wide and delighted, and she clapped weakly. "A love tale! Yes, dear, yes!"

The ballad was long, verse after verse of the lovers' meeting, courtship, and finally marriage, on the day Resha was crowned. He sang it as well as he knew how, losing himself in the melody and words, weaving a near trance around himself.

When he was finished, after the last verse about how the great kings and lovers had died in one another's arms at rich old ages, and how the trees planted over their graves had grown into one, he looked up again, the faces of his small audience coming once more into focus.

The handmaiden was gazing at him with rapt attention, her eyes wide; she blushed and looked away quickly when Thorne looked at her. He smiled, then let his gaze travel to the Lady Desidia.

Her eyes were filled with tears, and there was a trembling smile upon her face. "Oh, my lad," she whispered. "Oh, such a wonderful tale, and I've never heard it told quite like that. So wonderful!"

Thorne beamed at her, bowing low. "Thank you, my lady," he murmured, before glancing up at Kaven.

His smile faded, however, when he saw the prince. Kaven was staring at him, a strange expression on his face; he looked a little paler than usual, and his mouth was slightly agape, eyes murky with confusion and a little damp. The look lasted only a moment; as soon as Kaven realized Thorne was looking at him, he broke into a smile, and clapped appreciatively, if a little more reservedly than Thorne was used to. "Well done, indeed," he murmured. Then, turning to the lady, he said, "Shall we leave you to your rest now, my lady?"

The lady looked ready to protest, but the handmaiden nodded, slightly, and Thorne rose, once again bowing low. "I hope I will have the chance to play for you again. An appreciative audience is a bard's greatest wish."

She sighed, but smiled. "Yes," she murmured. "Yes, dear, well...it has been an honor to hear you play." She looked up at Kaven. "You hold onto him, dear," she instructed. "He is quite a catch."

Kaven went beet red, but bowed. "Thank you, my lady," he mumbled. "We will leave you to your rest, and thank you once more for your hospitality."

Thorne followed Kaven out, with a last farewell for their hostess, letting his smile slip from his face as the door closed behind him. Between Kaven's reaction to the song, and the lady's deterioration, he felt uncomfortable and morose, not what one wanted following a performance.

Kaven didn't speak, as they headed back to their chambers, or as they removed their vestments. Thorne wondered briefly where they were going to sleep--apart from the one large bed, which Tash was currently occupying, there were only cushions--but when he slid around to the other side he saw the staff had brought in two smaller cots while they were entertaining the lady. Kaven glanced at the large bed, then at Thorne, then smiled, awkwardly. "Uh--why don't you and Tash share the bed, and I can sleep on the cots?" he said.

Thorne raised an eyebrow. "I should protest and say it's not my place, but I imagine you'll insist. Though I don't think the lad would mind if you joined him, and I'm just as happy on a cot myself...there's more than enough room for me and they're both rather short for you."

Kaven considered, but shook his head. "No...no, it's all right. I can push them together. They'll be fine. Um. Goodnight, Thorne."

"If you're sure, then. Goodnight, Kaven," Thorne said, sounding a bit lost as he slid over to the huge bed, slowly removing the blue cloak and joining Tash.

It was a long time before he fell asleep.

* * *

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