The Sport of Kings

by Geron Kees

© 2024 All rights reserved Geron Kees

This is a work of fiction. All characters and situations are imaginary. No real people were harmed in the creation of this presentation. Please observe the laws of your jurisdiction with regards to reading this material.

The Merlin descended in a graceful arc, swift as lightning, deftly following the erratic course laid down by the blackbird ahead of it. The blackbird's speedy but broken flight path clearly revealed its desperation, having found itself the target of a hunter even faster and more agile in the air than itself. The small but powerful falcon in pursuit was a master of such aerial antics, matching turn for turn, dive for dive, deftly closing the range while toying with its prey. It was just a matter of time now.

"He is ready for the strike, my prince!"

Beneath the aerial contest, grouped near the edge of a field nestled between hills cloaked with tall stands of the King's forest, stood a small group, its central members intent on the maneuverings in the sky above. Three soldiers of the Royal Guard stood perimeter, all dressed in leathers and light mail, one carrying a small crossbow to balance out the other's swords. The three were obviously disinterested in the proceedings in the sky above, their attentions instead paid to the breeze-driven small movements of the grass of the field and the trees around them, searching among these natural motions for other, more threatening movements, not born of nature. Their eyes, never ceasing in their own hunts, missed nothing.

Within the triangle formed by their protective stands stood two others, both dressed in finer clothing, though also obviously meant to bestow protection against the rasping underbrush of the forests and dales. The taller of the two was an older man, broad-shouldered and bearded, and bearing the experienced lines in his sturdy face that spoke of long service and great loyalty. Cedric Donnelly, master falconer of the realm, and sometimes tutor to the Prince and future King, Kieron the Second, of the House of Stendus.

"Soon!" he whispered, his sharp gaze assessing the movements above.

Beside him, the boy prince watched the competing tactics of the two birds above with equal interest. Yellow-haired and blue-eyed, the young prince was, at only just sixteen, already somewhat jaded, his expectations colored by what was and had always been the truth of his life: to win. Kieron expected his bird to take the day, because that was the way of the world. Regals won what was rightfully theirs, and Faffhrd, his royal Merlin, was no exception. The bird of black was soon to die.

"He is a fighter, though," the boy admitted, his eyes on the black bird as it once again turned back on its path and just managed to dive beneath the falcon's equally swift advance. "But I think--"

He gasped into shocked silence as something blurred through the air then, passing between the two birds at a speed that sent them both diving away in opposing directions, the pursuit momentarily forgotten.

"Down!" one of the guards hissed then, his sword purring forth from its scabbard. He and the other swordsman launched themselves across the field towards the nearest hill then, while the bowman backed right up before the prince, his crossbow directed at a quivering copse of bushes atop that very hill. Cedric also stepped forward to interpose his body between the prince and any danger from that direction, his hand landing upon the prince's shoulder in an effort to push him towards the ground.

But Kieron was not of a mind to obey just then, and shrugged away the insistent hand. His thoughts were immediately for Faffhrd, and the bird's safety. Surely, that had been an arrow that had just streaked across the sky between the two birds! He raised a sliver whistle to his lips and blew it fiercely, at the same time raising his gloved hand. The falcon, having turned again on the currents above, dived for him, and settled gracefully onto his arm. Only then did the prince drop to a squat, even as he placed the small silken pouch over Faffhrd's head to keep him stayed put.

"What do you see?" he asked of Cedric then, his curiosity now poked into life.

For a moment there was silence; and then Cedric was rising slowly to his feet. "What is this?"

Kieron moved to peer around the big man, just as someone came rolling down the hill to land in a heap nearby. The two soldiers followed, one now carrying a bow and a quiver full of short arrows in the hand opposite the one that held his sword. They reached the fallen one, and the other soldier reached down and jerked him roughly to his feet. "Stand in the presence of your prince, I say!"

Kieron stared closely at the newcomer, feeling a small sense of shock now. He was but a boy, dark-haired and brown-eyed, perhaps Kieron's own age! A rough bruise was already forming on the side of his head, obviously the point where one of the soldier's mailed fists had struck him down. The boy's eyes were wild and slightly unfocused, his terror plain. "I have done nothing!"

Cedric snorted in anger. "You call loosing a shaft at a royal falcon nothing?"

The boy's eyes focused then, and his gaze landed on the irate man before him. "He was after my Midnight!"

"Killing a royal falcon is a serious offense," Cedric went on, as if he had not even heard what was said to him. "Even the attempt is punishable by forced labor in the King's mills."

Even in his terrified state, the boy managed an almost laugh. "If I had been trying to hit your falcon, I would have! I was just trying to scare him off my bird!"

"A moment," Kieron said then, stepping forward. Cedric's mouth snapped closed at that, and the soldiers perked up noticeably. The new boy's eyes moved to take him in, and for a long moment the two simply stared at each other in silence.

And for that moment Kieron was given pause, the pleading look in the other's wide-eyed gaze touching his heart. The boy's face was actually quite lovely, beneath the grime it wore, and the newly coloring bruise. For just a moment Keiron was taken with this newcomer's looks - but only briefly, before he remembered Cedric and the guards, watching. He shook off the feeling, his eyes now scanning the canopy of trees nearby. "Are you saying the blackbird belongs to you?"

"Ridiculous!" Cedric grumbled, shaking his head. "No one would bother mastering a wild bird. He is making excuses!"

Kieron eyed the other boy speculatively. "The blackbird is yours?"


"Then you can call him, I would think," Kieron answered, intending to put the lie to the other's claim.

"Her." The other boy looked unsettled now, as if the reality of his situation was coming home to him. "Midnight is a girl."

Kieron raised a hand dismissively. "Whatever. You can summon her, I would think."

The boy licked his lips carefully, but nodded. Kieron felt surprise at that. "Then do so now."

The other swallowed hard, looked around at the men towering over him, and raised a hand slowly, and stuck two fingers between his lips. A piercing whistle issued forth, and Faffhrd immediately stirred upon Kieron's hand. Kieron laid a finger on the bird's chest and stroked him gently to calm him, but his eyes were moving among the trees. "I don't see anything." His gaze dropped to meet the other boy's, and now held accusation. "You have lied to us."

"No...I...she's afraid, is all."

Kieron nodded, willing to give this beautiful one all the rope he needed to hang himself. "You may try again."

The other nodded, let loose another piercing whistle. This was followed by a call: "Midnight! Come!" And then the boy raised his hand to the sky.

For a moment only the afternoon breeze responded, sighing softly around them. But then...

There was a motion among the trees, and a dark shape separated itself out and flew towards them. The blackbird, it was now clear. It crossed the field, circled the group below, and then settled gently onto the boy's hand. He immediately pulled that hand to his breast, and cupped the bird with his other hand, gently stroking her. "Good girl," he whispered.

Cedric laughed in amazement, and then turned to Kieron. "I certainly look the fool! He spoke the truth!"

But Kieron was watching the other boy now, taking in the expression of tenderness upon his face at simply holding the blackbird close. If anything, the clear and honest display of compassion and affection for the small bird made the boy even lovelier to behold. A curious softening rose within Keiron, pushing away his anger. The truth was plain to see.

"You love her," he said quietly, his own hand giving Faffhrd another gentle stroke. "This, I can understand."

The dark-haired boy's gaze rose to meet his own, a mixture of anguish and fear. "I found her last year, fallen from a nest. I raised her. She's...she's all I have."

"Not a simple task," Cedric said, a trace of admiration now in his voice. But then his eyebrows knit together again. "That does not dispel the fact that you loosed a shaft at a royal falcon!"

"I couldn't let him kill her," the boy said softly. "I couldn't."

Kieron looked down at Faffhrd, perched quietly upon his gloved hand. He had similar feelings for the falcon. A friend...a companion, in a world that allowed for few mistakes in choosing both. This was a tumultuous land, and friends were hard to come by. Still...

"You were not trying to hit my falcon?"

"No. I didn't want to hurt him. Just to break his hunt of Midnight."

Kieron watched the other, felt the truth of his words. This boy's feelings for his own blackbird were plain, just as was the dawning realization that what he had done would likely cause him to lose both the bird and his freedom. There was something very sad about that, and Kieron was startled to understand that he felt shame at putting such fright into one so now obviously having acted in defense of a friend.

"Your name?" Kieron asked, his thoughts now awhirl.

The other boy looked surprised. "Derek."

Cedric harumphed mightily. "Derek what?"

The boy made an apologetic shrug. "Just Derek. I never knew my parents."

Kieron felt a further twinge of sympathy for the boy with no lineage, adding to the softening of feeling he was experiencing. But now he knew from whence it came: he was taken with this boy who had put his life at risk to defend one very small bird. The face before him, beneath the layer of grime and the bruise it now wore, was quite striking, quite beautiful. But that beauty ran deeper, Keiron could now perceive. There was kindness there...and caring.

The young prince took a startled breath, understanding now what was happening with his perspective. It was his secret self now speaking. He was taken with this boy.

"Where do you live?" Kieron asked, realizing that this hidden portion of his mind had already made some sort of decision.

The brown-haired boy blinked. "My far-cousin is a breeder at the stables in Brownleigh. When I can stand to, I share his room with him."

Keiron frowned at that. A breeder of horses? And, he knew well the stables at Brownleigh! "Big man? Bald-headed? Always scowling?" He turned to Cedric. "You know who I mean. Oh, what's his name?"

"Bollen," the falconer supplied, rolling his eyes, which then settled on the other boy. "You have my sympathies."

And then, quite magically, a beautiful smile appeared on the newcomer's face, bringing a slight catch to Kieron's breath, and cementing his resolve now to act. "He's an oaf," Derek agreed. "But he tolerates my presence, as long as I work for him."

Kieron noticed Cedric watching him watch the other boy then, but the man's gaze moved swiftly back to Derek. "And how did you come to be here today?" He asked, but with a definite diminishing of his annoyance now apparent in his voice. Did he sense Keiron's interest?

"Bollen went to Angerlick to buy a horse for the stable master, Ramsay, who was there himself this day. Ramsay told me to go for a hike." The boy leaned forward and lowered his voice. "There is a town girl, Elana, who likes to play, and the hay in the stables gives great comfort beneath her back."

The three soldiers traded glances, and allowed themselves small, knowing smiles at that, and the general mood among the group lightened yet another notch.

"You're obviously good with birds," Kieron said then, his thoughts having solidified. He turned to Cedric. "Couldn't we use someone like this?"

The man pulled at his beard thoughtfully, his eyes on Kieron; but he seemed not at all surprised by this turn of events. His gaze moved from Kieron to Derek, and back again. "All you need say is for me to hire him, and it is done."

Kieron turned to Derek. "What say you? Would you rather work with birds, than horse manure?"

The boy blinked, and sagged slightly backwards at the unexpected offer. "What? Well...I...I..."

"What's that you say? You'd love to?" Cedric said heartily, winking at Kieron. Kieron smiled at that, finding the look on Derek's face warmly appealing. If there was guile here, it was so well-concealed as to be applauded. If Derek was anything but what he had said, there was no evidence of it in his expression now.

But what was there...Keiron found he liked what he was seeing.

"The position comes with pay," he added, smiling.

Derek's eyes widened, and he nodded eagerly...but then glanced down at Midnight, still held gently against him. "What of my bird?"

"She is welcome, too," Kieron decided, nodding. "Though you must take care with her. Our falcons are trained well, and will not hunt within their own keep. But we don't wish any accidents to occur, either. I will assist you with training them to accept her."

"You think they will?" Derek asked, and the hope in his eyes was the final stone set into the walkway of Kieron's certainty.

"Yes. I think they will."

Marinda examined the bruise on the side of Derek's head, and made small clucking noises with her tongue. "Is it painful?"

They were in the castle infirmary, a clean and bright room with artfully stained-glass windows between those that admitted light, a design which allowed the afternoon sun to paint the stone floor in cheerful colors.

"I've felt better," Derek admitted, wincing as her fingers touched a sore spot.

Kieron sighed. "Gafiel was only protecting me when he struck you. But I apologize for the abruptness of our meeting." It was truly a crime to have damaged so lovely a face, he admitted, within.

Derek waved a hand at him. "It was my fault."

Marinda made an expression that suggested how she felt about the soldier's roughness, but said nothing that might serve to solidify her sentiment. She went about gently washing the boy's face, revealing to Kieron that it was even more beautiful than he had originally thought. He felt even more guilty about the bruise now, and for having contemplated taking revenge upon one so plainly without guile.

The woman finished wiping Derek's face, and smiled at the results. "I have a poultice I can put on that bruise. It will address the pain immediately, and the bruising within a day."

Derek's eyebrows raised at that. "So quickly?"

"There is some magic involved," Kieron said, smiling. "But only the gentle sort that heals."

Derek looked anew at Marinda, his expression now one of awe. "I have never met a true healer before!"

"Nor are you likely to meet another," Kieron responded. "What few genuine healers exist are mostly in the service of some lord, somewhere." He smiled then. "By their own choice, of course."

"Of course," Marinda agreed. She smiled at Derek. "If you plan to serve as a falconer with our prince, you will be well taken care of, I assure you."

"She means that it's one of my favorite sports," Kieron elaborated, looking askance at the healer. Marinda had helped his mother, the Queen, to birth him, and had looked after Kieron's well-being for his entire life. That the healer was able to see much more of what lived inside Kieron, he knew. That she would never speak of it openly, he knew as well.

It was surely his own unease at what he felt for Derek that prompted his addition, for the healer gave him a look of surprise, and then a smile. "Of course."

Kieron felt his face warm, and he paused to regroup his thoughts, before turning back to Derek. "Uh...after we are done here, we will see about assigning you quarters near the aerie."

Derek looked amazed. "A room of my own?"

"More or less. I think you'll find the situation suitable."

Marinda went to one of her cabinets and returned with an ornate jar. She removed the lid, and a pleasant aroma reminiscent of flowers filled the room.

Derek took a whiff and drew back. "You're going to put that on me? I will smell like the bride at a hot summer wedding!"

Kieron and Marinda both laughed at that. "The fragrance is a byproduct of storage, and will quickly dissipate when exposed to the air," Marinda assured. "By the time you walk out of here, you will just smell...well, as you did when you arrived."

Kieron raised a hand to cover his smile. "Some new clothing will be in order, I think. And a bath, before you don any!"

Derek sniffed self-consciously, and then put on a most charming pout that made Kieron's heart thump in his chest. "Do I smell badly?"

"There is some reminder of horses," Marinda said gently.

"Just some," Kieron agreed. He smiled, watching as Marinda spread the poultice over Derek's bruise.

"This will be absorbed very quickly," the healer explained. "After it feels dry, it cannot be washed off. Feel free to bathe, without harming the effect."

She recapped the ornate jar, and smiled at Derek. "How does it feel now?"

Derek refocused, raised a hand as if to touch the bruise, thought better of it, and then smiled. "The pain is gone!"

"The discoloration will mostly fade overnight, and should be gone entirely within a day after that."

"Our Marinda is most adept with her formulas," Kieron pointed out. "If she says it is so, it is so."

The healer smiled at him. "May I suggest a meal for our new falconer, along with that bath? This one doesn't look as if he has had enough to eat of late, to me."

"We will feed him, as well," Kieron agreed. He nodded at the healer. "My thanks, for another task well done."

"As always, I am at your service, my prince." She turned, and laid a hand on Derek's shoulder. "Be well."

Cedric examined Derek's face, and nodded. "Good. We will have you looking your old self in quick order."

"I was going to take him to the outfitter next," Kieron offered, nodding, "and then give him the quarters your old assistant once occupied."

The older man nodded. "That will work." He offered a smile to Derek. "We can begin you getting to know the aerie and our falcons tomorrow, after you have had a good night's rest."

Kieron did not find it at all unusual that Cedric was now fully behind him in adopting Derek as assistant falconer. The old man knew Keiron's moods well, and had obviously discerned his interest in the new boy. That made Kieron a bit nervous, for he had no idea how much of his true nature the old man actually was aware of. But the path had been taken, and it was too late to turn back now. Ultimately, it didn't matter. He was Prince of the Realm, and no one would speak out against him, or his wishes.


Cedric turned to Kieron now. "You needn't do this all yourself, my prince. I can get one of the valets to take Derek around to the outfitter."

Kieron immediately shook his head. "I want to do it." But he was startled then by the intensity of his own words, and quickly offered a smile. "Anyone that will be working with my birds must first rest easy in my mind. By getting to know Derek, I will be more comfortable with my decision."

The old man's eyes inspected him with a trace of a smile, which he did not allow to appear on his lips. "As you wish, my prince."

Derek had been listening in silence as he was talked about almost as if he was not present. "I will do whatever is needed, my prince."

Kieron nodded. "Good. Then I will now see about clothing you in a manner more in line with your position, while Cedric leaves us, off to ably performs the duties he knows await him."

The old man let out a laugh then. "I see I am dismissed!" But he leaned forward to smile now at both boys. "I will see you at the evening meal."

Kieron felt his face warm at the suggestion that Derek would be invited to dine with the prince, but knew it to be absolutely true. Derek had come into his life now, and Keiron was certain in his desire to have him there in all aspects of his day. There was no fooling Cedric!

The old man laughed again, and headed off down the hallway. Keiron smiled after him a moment, and then turned and took Derek by the arm. "Come along."

Kunis, the castle outfitter, walked slowly around Derek, his finger on his chin, his expression one of concentration. Kieron tried not to smile, knowing full well how the man was. Kunis was aghast at what he saw, and doing his best not to affront the prince's new guest. "Well, this look simply has to go," he finally said.

Kieron did laugh then. "Of course. This is why he is here. These, um, work clothes must be replaced with a wardrobe. Daily clothing for leisure, hiking gear, clothing suitable for falconing, a formal or two - you know what is needed. And we would like it to be provided as rapidly as is reasonable."

Kunis managed a smile then, seeing now that he would be let out to play. "He looks your own size, my prince. Would you grant me permission to adapt some of your own lesser reserve stock? It will go much more quickly that way."

The idea of Derek wearing some of his own clothing actually thrilled Kieron, but he did his best not to show it. "If that will assist in a speedy delivery, go right ahead."

Derek looked slightly wild-eyed at the notion. "But, your own clothing, my prince--"

"I have too much of it as it is," Kieron interrupted, raising a hand. He smiled. "Consider it some repayment, for your injury at the hands of my guard."

The other boy looked doubtful, but squinted at him then. "You mean that, don't you?"

"Of course." Kieron felt a twinge of guilt now, that such repayment was even necessary. "You are welcome to it, and that is my word."

"I must measure, of course," Kunis said then, looking pleased at the new task. "But my eye is good, and I am certain he is close enough to your size for a fit, my prince." He frowned than. "Perhaps a bit lighter than you--"

"He will fill out, with a few good meals," Kieron pointed out.

"Yes." Kunis looked happy then. "I think I can promise at least something wearable for the evening meal."

Derek's jaw dropped, and Kieron smiled at the sight. "Careful of flies," he said jovially.

Derek blinked, and his mouth snapped shut on a smile. "It is is so much to take in, in so little a space of time."

"May I ask where our young guest will be staying?" Kunis interjected then. "I will deliver something as quickly as possible."

"He is not a guest, but is now staff," Kieron corrected. "He will have the quarters next to Cedric's, in accordance with his position as assistant falconer."

"Ah. Very well." Kunis eyed Derek with a brief purse of his lips, but then smiled. "Welcome, young sir. I do believe you will find you have come to very good place to be employed."

"Um, thank you." Derek gave his head a brief shake, and then breathed out a sigh. "I think I am learning that, even now."

"Kunis works fast, and he works wonders," Kieron explained, as he led Derek around the corridor towards his new quarters. "I think you will be pleased with his efforts."

Derek looked over at him, and nodded. "I'm certain, my prince."

Kieron frowned, already tiring of the address. It was odd - he was used to being addressed that way by all the staff - as my prince - and it had never bothered him before now. But it didn't seem in line with what he wanted or expected from Derek. Still, there were the niceties to look out for just now, and he couldn't very well just order the boy to change his speech.

Could he?

Kieron was stunned to suddenly realize he had no idea at all how to proceed with winning Derek. Had he simply thought he could order the boy to his bed? A regal takes what he needs, correct?

But -- the very idea of taking Derek made Kieron upset, and he was totally at a loss at the moment to explain why.

"Are you well, my prince?" Derek asked. Kieron realized he had stopped in the middle of the hallway. The other boy was looking at him strangely.

Kieron took a breath, released it, and smiled. "Um...I am fine. It just occurred to me that I didn't ask to have your quarters cleaned ahead of your occupation." He frowned. "Still, the cleaning staff tidies even the unoccupied rooms - it should be fine."

And with that, he pushed his confusion about Derek to the side, for the moment. But it hung there, still, a cloud over his future that would have to be dealt with at some point in time.

Kieron resumed walking, and Derek moved to accompany him.

"I was just wanting to ask, my prince...has Midnight been placed in the aerie?" One of the guards had carefully taken the blackbird upon entering the castle. Derek had been worried at that, but Keiron had seen that the boy was too afraid to say anything. Keiron had reassured him that Midnight would be fine, but could see now that his words had not fully had the desired effect.

Kieron smiled at the other boy. "Wait just a moment, and you will see." He pointed at the ornate door they were even then passing. "Cedric lives here. This next doorway is a room that is quick storage for some of the gear used in falconing, and then your own quarters will be found beyond."

Derek looked around at the elaborate furnishings of the hallway. "Here?"

"Yes." My own rooms are in the royal family portion of the keep, but I also have working accommodations that are next to yours. I like to be close to Cedric, and to the aerie when we are training new birds." He shrugged. "And, with my parents always away, those other rooms often echo with their vacancy. Cedric is my friend and mentor. It is not in my nature to wish to always be alone."

Derek looked pleased at that. "You will be my neighbor?" Or, was that even delight at the notion? "I will endeavor to be quiet at night."

Kieron smiled at that. "You will find the rooms have excellent soundproofing. we are, now."

They stopped before another ornate door, and Kieron grasped the handle and thumbed the latch, and pushed the large door inward. "This way."

A happy squawk greeted them, and Derek whooped in delight as he spied Midnight tethered to a stand near a window. He rushed forward to see the bird, and Midnight flapped her wings and danced upon her perch in response.

"There you are, my sweet!" Derek crooned, placing a hand around the bird and briefly hugging her to his chest. He bent down to smile at her, and then turned that smile to Kieron. "She will stay here, with me?"

"If that is what you wish. But for now, it is best. We will need to accustom the falcons to her presence before it is safe to leave her in the aerie, if you choose to do that."

"No. I will be happy to have her stay with me."

Kieron nodded. "You will find a stock of soft seeds and berries in the stand there, by her perch. Earthworms and fresh berries will be available daily in the aerie - I have so ordered it. Also, some fruit will be made available if you wish it. You can bring some back for her each day."

Derek cooed softly at the bird, which looked up at him with curious eyes. "We will be happy here, my sweet."

Kieron swallowed hard, the pleasure in Derek's voice so very plain. Making this boy happy had somehow become a need for him...and it was all he could do now not to reach out and put a comforting hand on the other's shoulder. If some closeness was to develop between them, it must not be forced. It must occur in the natural course of their days.

And, their nights.

Kieron sighed, and looked around the room. "I think you will be comfortable here. Come, have a look."

It was a suite, with three rooms. A sitting room with a large, many-paned window that looked out over the greensward, with the mountains beyond the castle visible above the curtain wall, dappled with the rose sunlight that heralded the coming of evening. Even Kieron thought the view was charming.

Off the large sitting room was a bedroom, with chests of drawers and armoires, and a large, four-poster bed, and glass-paned double doors next to that that led to a balcony where the same view visible from the sitting room could be enjoyed from outdoors. And, finally, off the bedroom was a bath. As he displayed this room to Derek, Kieron felt a tightness in his loins as he contemplated the other boy bathing here very shortly.

"The bath uses a pumping system developed by the court magician," he explained. He leaned down and patted one of the handles. "This one issues cold water, the other, you will find, issues warm water." He smiled. "Unless you are very daring, I would suggest you mix them. The cold water is cold, indeed." He pointed at the line of small bottles and the cake of soap in a dish by the tub's side. "Soap and other accessories, that will help you to clean up, and to enjoy how you smell afterwards." He laughed. "I would suggest you smell each scented potion before trying any, lest you wind up once again like that bride at the summer wedding you mentioned before."

Derek laughed, and it made Kieron smile. The other boy's eyes were so bright and beautiful when he laughed!

"The summer heat makes all smell the same," Derek explained. "Unpleasant! So the women put on the flowery scents to mask the odor, and often to not good effect!"

Kieron nodded. "So, these are your rooms, then."

Derek shook his head in amazement. "All of this...this for me? I can't believe it."

Kieron watched him a moment, wondering at what the other boy was used to, that these somewhat spartan rooms would seem so luxurious to him. It pained him now to think what hardships the other might be used to as a matter of daily living. While he had always been aware that regals lived far above the common man, he had never really considered what that might actually mean in terms of simple safety and comfort.

I want better for Derek, he decided then and there. I want him to be happy.

And then he was filled with surprise at his very own thoughts. Happiness was not something one could command. It could be given, yes. Or, the basis for it could be given. But the feeling itself? It must come from within, not without. So the question became, how to have Derek make his own happiness, while also allowing Kieron to share in it?

They heard a knock at the door then, and returned to the sitting room. It was a valet, fresh from the workrooms of Kunis, with an armload of new clothing for Derek.

"Enough to keep him for a night and a day," the young man said, holding up the stacked clothing in his hands. "Master Kunis said there would be more and better, very soon. May I place these in the bedroom, my prince?"

Kieron nodded. "Please do. And thank you, and thank Kunis for me, too."

The young man nodded, did as he was asked, and then left.

Kieron sighed. "You have an hour or so before the evening meal. It will just be you, myself, and Cedric." He pointed back at the bath. "Bathe, try on some of your clothing, pick something you like. I'll send someone for you at dinner."

Derek bowed his head. "Thank you, my prince. I will be ready."

Kieron forced a smile, nodded, and left Derek to his rooms.

But that he was confused and unhappy now, himself, was clear. He needed someone to talk to. There was only Cedric he could trust...or...was there?

Keiron turned and looked towards Cedric's door. He was probably not back from his rounds yet. Keiron thought a moment more, and then turned the other way, and headed back to the infirmary.

"My nature you know," Kieron dared, looking across the table at Marinda. "I need your guidance."

The woman smiled. "Which part of your nature are we dealing with, my prince?"

"I think you already know. I sensed it in you earlier, when I was here with Derek." Kieron stared into the woman's dark eyes, trying to divine her thoughts. But it was never easy, with this one.

The woman watched him back, and Kieron felt certain that the healer had no such trouble seeing within him.

"You are fond of Derek." It was a statement, not a question.

"Yes." Keiron let out a sigh. "I think I am...I think I am falling in love with him."

The woman nodded. "It may be meant to be."

Kieron frowned. "You're a seeress, too?"

"I did not mean it that way. I do not speak of fates, but of lineage. Some men are born to love women, and some are love other men. So it is with my own gender, Kieron. It is nature, not accident. It is natural, not wrong."

"It is a trait not beloved of a future king, that is for certain."

Marinda slid her hands across the table, laid them gently upon Kieron's own. "I have loved you since I first saw you born from your mother, heard your first cries at seeing the greater world. And, yes, I have known your thoughts on this subject for some time now, ever since your cousin, William, used to visit."

Keiron was startled at that. "Three years? And you never said a word?"

"They were not my words to say. Only you could broach this subject with me."

Keiron closed his eyes. "I don't know what to do."

"I think you are already doing it."

Keiron opened his eyes. "I have done nothing, as yet."

The woman nodded. "Let me ask you this: all you have done for Derek thus it solely to lure him to your bed? Or, is his happiness what concerns you?"

Keiron saw Derek's face in his mind then, his smile, his bright eyes. "I want him to be happy."

"You would not take away all you have given him, should he refuse you?"

Keiron did not even need to struggle with the thought. "No."

Marinda watched him a moment, and then smiled. "You will be a fine king, someday."

Keiron blew out his breath. "That does not help me now."

Marinda patted his hands a last time, and then withdrew her own. "I have sensed things from this boy. He has a kind and loving spirit. You could not have chosen better for a companion, in my estimation."

Kieron leaned forward on the tabletop. "But is it the sort of loving spirit that will allow him love me? And I mean, to love me as in a lover, and not just a friend?"

The healer smiled at him. "I think that is a question that only Derek can answer." She plainly saw the argument arising in Keiron's eyes, for then she reached out, and patted his hand once again. "And, I feel, one that he will."

As the weeks went by, Kieron felt his life changing around him. Being with Derek was simply wonderful, and at the end of each day, when he retired to his chambers for the night, all he could wish for was morning to arise, so that they could be together again. The other boy seemed to have gotten over his initial shyness, but still was very careful not to forget the boundaries he knew existed between their social levels. That pained Kieron, because by then he had become even more certain that the rules by which he had lived the first sixteen years of his life would not do here: a regal could not simply take everything that struck his fancy. Some things needed to be given, and freely, to have even a shred of meaning. Much as he wanted to be with Derek, he now knew that that could only happen if he could win the other boy's heart. And, still, he had no real idea how to do that.

Derek went riding each morning with Kieron, Cedric, and the trio of the prince's personal guard. It was a ritual that Kieron had adopted when he had barely been able to climb upon a horse, and including Derek only seemed natural. Cedric accepted the change with his customary grunt of approval, though what the man really thought did worry Kieron just a bit. Cedric was utterly loyal, there could be no doubt of that. Kieron loved the old man, and knew that Cedric loved him. In a world in which his father and mother played very active roles and were often away, Cedric had become a second father to him. Kieron did not want anything to interfere with that relationship. While men loving men was not unheard of at all within the realm, and was hardly subject to more than laughter by some as judgment, Kieron was expected to sire an heir, and he did not know how Cedric might react to a perception that Kieron was endangering that trust .

It was just one of the many new problems that filled his head since he had met the brown-haired boy and his blackbird in the field by the woods.

"You ride well," Keiron said, smiling at Derek as they left their mounts with the stable hands inside the walls of the castle. The morning's ride had been invigorating, and Kieron had found his good spirits returned.

"When you're around horses every day, it's hard not to, my prince," Derek replied. "But I am much more used to being behind the horse, than being in the mount."

The reference to shoveling horse manure was not lost on Keiron. He had in fact remarked upon that very chore himself in trying to persuade the other boy to come work for him. But now he was embarrassed at his previous tactics.

"You're better than that," Keiron said, trying to cover his discomfort. "You are a wonder with the falcons. Sir Cedric said he has never seen better."

Derek stopped in his tracks. Kieron reacted promptly, but still had to turn around to address the other boy. "Is something wrong?"

"Well--" The other boy looked uneasy. "I didn't know Sir Cedric was a Knight of the Realm. I have not been addressing him so."

Kieron laughed, but it was a companionable laugh. "And what did he instruct you to call him?"


"Then, that is how you are to call him."

A slow smile arising on the other boy's face was the answer. "Yes, my prince."

Kieron felt some of his good feeling slip away. "And my name is Kieron. I wish you would address me so."

Derek's eyes widened, and he looked quickly around the stables. But no one was near, no one had heard. The three soldiers of the guard had stepped outside the doorway, and Cedric had returned to his rooms to change out of his riding gear.

The boy licked his lips nervously. "That would not be proper, my prince."

Kieron sighed. Perhaps such changes needed to be made in smaller doses?

He leaned closer to Derek, just the act of closing distance to the other boy's face making his heart pound in his chest. "Perhaps when it's just the two of us, then? We've become friends, I hope. I would much rather you call me by name."

They were less than an arm's length apart, and Kieron was looking into the other boy's eyes. Derek's eyes were a beautiful golden brown, and lively with the life within the boy. But just now, as they watched Kieron closely...what else did Keiron spy there?

Derek swallowed hard, and took a step back. He took a breath, and looked around the stables again. The groomers were already busy at their mounts, and no one was paying any attention to them.

He did lean closer again, just ever so slightly. "I am a commoner, and you are a regal."

Kieron felt pain at the words, feeling them as a wall between the two of them. But he regrouped, and smiled. "So, are required to do what I say?"

"Of course, my prince."

Kieron smiled. "Then call me Kieron."

Derek blinked, staring at him, but Kieron kept eye contact, and refused to let his smile slip.

Slowly...Derek smiled. It was a beautiful sight! "Perhaps in private, it would be less worrisome."

Kieron sighed softly at the small victory. He turned then, and started walking, and Derek quickly took his place beside him. "Not so hard, was it?" Kieron whispered.

Derek looked around the stables a last time as they approached the doorway into the ward, and laughed softly. "Not if you say so, friend Kieron."

"You've taken right to birding as a profession," Keiron said to Derek, after another week of time had passed. They were alone in the aerie, the late morning sun entering through the tall, grated windows. "The falcons like you, which means a lot to me."

Derek smiled the smile that Keiron had come to love. "I like them, too, especially now that they have accepted Midnight among them. It wasn't as hard as I expected it to be."

Kieron nodded. "They can be amazingly gentle, for such efficient birds of prey." He smiled around at the falcons. "I have often wondered what it would be like to soar among the clouds. The very idea implies a freedom we surely cannot understand, being bound to the land as we are."

Derek frowned at that. "Maybe."

Keiron smiled at the expression on the other boy's face. "What? You have never dreamed of flying?"

Derek looked around the room, found only birds to watch him. "You won't laugh?"

Keiron sensed a test, and erased the smile from his face. "No. I won't laugh."

Derek let his shoulders sag a little. "I am afraid of heights."

Keiron suddenly remembered a moment when he had been younger, and standing alone at the parapet high above the room they occupied even now, atop the castle keep. He had been watching the far road, upon which his father, the King, would soon return from Crestwood. He had stretched up upon his toes, and leaned very far out, when an errant wind had tugged at him suddenly, and for a moment he had actually thought he would be dragged over the stone wall and fall to his death, so far below. It had been but the briefest of moments, before he had stepped quickly back and been safe; but...he had gained something from the experience, something lasting. A newfound respect, both for heights and for wind, that had settled deeply inside him, and never left. He had not tempted either again.

"I understand," he said gently. "I really do."

Derek's smile reappeared. "You're very easy to talk to, for a--" He broke off then, his expression one of instant retreat. "I'm sorry."

Keiron felt a brief and uncharacteristic bout of embarrassment. "You were about to say, 'for a regal'?"

Derek lowered his eyes. "I'm sorry."

Keiron was saddened. Still, this boy was afraid of him. How could there be any progress with this continuing blockade of their status between them?

He watched Derek, his eyes caressing the beautiful lines of the other boy's face. What once had been a playful attraction to others of his own gender within Keiron had matured now into a lust and love for them. Derek was the first person to come along and have that newfound desire settle upon him. Keiron was adamant that nothing be allowed to interfere with what he hoped would be a natural progression to love, for both of them. These constant references to their difference in status was becoming annoying!

Almost unthinkingly, he reached out and laid a hand gently upon the other boy's shoulder. "There is no reason to be afraid of me. We are friends, and you call me by name. And here, in this aerie, we are alone. None may enter without first a knock, and then a summons from myself." He breathed a startled breath at what he was about to say. "Here, when it is just you and I, there are no regals, no commoners. There are just the two of us, friends."

Derek started at the touch, but he did not pull back. He closed his eyes a moment, and the world simply took a pause as they stood there, motionless and quiet, while the birds made small sounds upon their perches around them.

"Please do not fear me." Kieron repeated into the silence.

The other boy opened his eyes. "I...I do not fear you. It is ...respect."

"Then respect me by not cowering from me."

Derek gently chewed his lip at that.

Kieron nodded, seeing that a change of direction was needed. He struggled with his thoughts for a moment, then withdrew his hand and stepped back, smiling. "Have you been happy with your rooms?"

Derek blinked, and then smiled himself, relief at the change of subject apparent. Oh, what glory in a simple smile! "Oh, yes! They are the finest quarters I have ever had. I still cannot believe that all three rooms are mine!"

Kieron stifled a laugh at that. "As assistant falconer, you are entitled to decent quarters. They're yours for as long as you like."

Derek's gaze briefly climbed to the timbers of the ceiling above them. "It's like a dream. I can't believe this has happened to me!"

Kieron felt elation at the other boy's joy, but it lasted only seconds before it was replaced with worry. Would Derek's reaction be so joyous if he were to learn that the prince of the realm desired him? That he was here now because of his pretty eyes, and his beautiful smile, and for his obvious love for Midnight, one of the more graceful of nature's creatures?

Well...that, and more. The attraction that Kieron felt for the other boy was growing in complexity by the day. First struck by a pretty face, a winning smile; next by the other boy's gentle kindness towards animals, his respect for others; and then by Derek's contagious joy for life, for the things - even common things - he did each day, as if each were new and golden. Kieron knew he had been falling in love with Derek these past weeks, but he still had no idea how to make that love known; nor, perhaps, how to survive the possibly calamitous aftermath such a revelation might engender, if he did. He was a prince, one day to be a king; and yet he felt a slave now to his own feelings, and his own awkwardness with such things as affection and companionship with another.

"I am happy you are happy," he said, perhaps more dully than he had intended.

Derek focused on him again, a frown coming forth. "Are you distressed, Kieron? Have I done something?"

"No." Kieron forced a smile again. "T'is neither. I am simply pleased to have you here. As you have seen, there are few here that are of an age as us."

There was silence between them a moment before Derek raised his shoulders slightly, and smiled his beautiful smile. "I do see now, why you wish a friend." He bit at his lip again. "I must far does our friendship extend? May I ask you more difficult questions, as I would any other friend?"

Kieron immediately nodded. "Of course. I place no limitations on our friendship. It must be whole, or it has no use to either of us."

Derek's eyes widened. "No limitations?"

"None." Again, Kieron could not help reaching out and laying a hand on Derek's shoulder. This time he dared to give it a fond squeeze. "If what you ask carries too much weight, I will simply duck, and let it sail on by."

Derek laughed at that. "So there may still be secrets between us?"

"I think even the best of friends have thoughts they feel are not to share. It is simply the way of things, and not a slight. We are each our own person, correct?"


"Then we will each have things we do not share. Or, perhaps, not immediately."

Derek's expression was almost teasing now, something that Kieron found delighted him. "Big things? Serious things?"

"Sometimes. Or, even small things, that may have serious consequences."

Derek sighed. "You are not at all as I expected a regal to be." But there was something light to the word regal now, that had not been in Derek's words before now.

Kieron laughed, feeling his worries dwindle for the moment. "You are not at all what I expected a commoner to be!"

They both laughed, but the smiles they each wore now spoke of a breach in the wall of status between them. For the first time, Kieron felt some hope that, perhaps, loving Derek might come to pass.

The were in the same field where they had met, but this time there were no falcons. They had come to allow Midnight to fly, and it was safest if she did that alone. They watched as she sailed among the trees, each time flying in a wide circle, and then landing on some new branch. And all the while, her eyes were on the ground.

Twice now, she had launched herself to the grass below, to pounce upon something she felt was food. The last time, she had risen back to a branch with the twisting form of an earthworm in her grasp.

"It's a hard world, when one is food," Kieron said, sighing.

Cedric nodded at that. "Always better to be the eater than the eaten." He glanced up at the sun then, and turned to the prince. "Probably best we head back now."

Keiron also looked skyward, and nodded. "Derek? Time to retrieve your bird."

Derek had been sitting in the grass, watching Midnight enjoy her bout of freedom. He stood now, and raised a hand, and released his summoning whistle.

They could see the bird upon the branch, but she simply watched them, munching upon her earthworm, and did not respond. Derek frowned at that, and waggled his fingers. "Midnight! Come, girl!" Again, he blew the whistle.

The bird finally flapped her wings, and then launched herself from the branch, glided across the field, and landed on Derek's gloved hand.

"She was just finishing her meal, I guess." Derek stroked the bird fondly, and she allowed him to place a silken bag over her head to keep her stilled.

"Perhaps," Cedric said, his eyes on Derek. "And, perhaps not."

"What does that mean?"

The older man sighed. "Birds are wild creatures, Derek. Even tamed and trained, it happens sometimes that a falcon flies off and does not return. Sometimes, the yearning to be free is simply too strong for them to master." He seemed to think better of that then. "Or, for us to master, perhaps I should say."

Derek looked down at his bird with a worried frown. "You think she may fly off one day, and not return?"

Cedric smiled, came nearer, and dropped a hand on Derek's shoulder. "No. I simply think you should be prepared for the possibility that it could happen. At best, wild things become fond of us, and stay. But sometimes, they don't. If your Midnight one day strives to be free, it is her right, and she will take it. It will be a loss for you, but you must know it is her nature, and not taken because she no longer loves you." He gave Derek's shoulder a squeeze. "And because we love them, we do not deny them that right to leave."

Derek stroked the bird with a fingertip. "I guess you're right. I would not wish to hold her captive. If one day she leaves, I will strive to be happy for her."

Keiron had been listening, and it had made him think. What went for wild things went for people, as well. You could not hold them captive, either. Sometimes, they left.

His eyes fastened upon Derek, and he wondered what he would do if the boy decided one day he wanted to go. But even as he posed the question, he knew the answer.

I would let him be free. Because I know now that I love him.

Derek's eyes moved to Kieron. "It would be painful."

Keiron nodded. "Yes, it would." But it was not the bird he meant.

Cedric smiled, and waved a hand. "But you are together now, so make the best of it. The world lives in each day, not in the many maybes of the future."

But Keiron was not listening now. He and Derek were locked at the eyes, each watching the other, the thoughts behind each gaze equally indecipherable.

It lasted for far longer a time than Keiron could imagine, before he became aware of Cedric waving to the guards around them. "Come, gentlemen. We are leaving."

"She loves to fly," Kieron stated, reaching across to stroke the blackbird gently. "It is evident in the way she moves across the sky. It is joy to her."

"Your Faffhrd is the same," Derek noted, smiling at the falcon in front of Kieron.

Both birds were tethered to short perches to keep them from flying away from the top of the keep. The boys were relaxing in wooden chairs that sat among the small trees and the garden plants. This part of the top of the keep was isolated from the rest, being on the back side, away from the nearer castle walls, and had its own staircase back to the central hallway, several floors below. The sentries that watched from other parts of the top of the keep were separated by walls offering privacy to members of the royal family using the tower garden. Kieron loved the place, a little bit of forest in the sky; but he was mostly the only one that ever used it. His parents, even when home, were often too preoccupied with matters of government to relax here.

"It worried me, what Cedric said earlier," Derek continued. "That Midnight might one day fly away. I cannot imagine being without her."

Kieron closed his eyes, not wanting to go back to the idea of anyone leaving. "If it happens, it happens."

"This is an amazing place," Derek continued, perhaps sensing Kieron's change in mood. The other boy smiled around at the greenery, and he sighed happily. "So many new things."

Kieron couldn't help smiling at the look of wonder in the other boys eyes, and just like that, his mood lightened. "It makes me happy that you are happy."

He'd meant it simply, but realized the moment he said it that it sounded like more. Derek looked surprised, but in no way upset at Kieron's choice of words. "I am happy. Thank you for making me that way."

The look that accompanied those words made Kieron feel slightly giddy. Was it fondness he saw?

"It was not I that caused you to be happy, Derek. You have found that for yourself."

"But it was by your actions that happiness has come to me," Derek argued. "Just being with you has made me happy."

Those words felt wonderful to Keiron; but even so, he thought to minimize them, afraid to attach more than simple meaning to them.

"I have enjoyed your company, as well." Keiron pulled his eyes away from the other boy's gaze to look around at the garden. "I am mostly the only person to come here. My parents are often away."

"You've no brothers or sisters, either," Derek said, watching him closely. "You must get lonely."

Kieron sighed at that, knowing it was just an innocent statement. "I have Cedric, who is always there if needed, and I have Faffhrd." He smiled then. "And Marinda, when I feel the need for womanly advice. The other birds, to a lesser extent, though Faffhrd is my favorite."

Derek moved his eyes to the falcon. "A lucky fellow, Faffhrd."

Keiron gave a small laugh at that, but it seemed that Derek was being sincere. The other boy turned a more serious expression at him. "It must be wonderful to be someone's favorite."

A small thrill rose within Keiron then. What was this? Were they playing a...a word game?

He cleared his throat, and spoke slowly. "Faffhrd is my favorite bird, I should say."

Derek nodded, his eyes now holding a certain intensity. "You have a favorite person, as well?"

"I do." But Keiron simply smiled after that.

Derek watched a moment, and then smiled, also. "You're not going to tell me?"

"That may be one of those little secrets I said we might have between us."

Derek licked his lips, watching Keiron. "It's Cedric."

Keiron considered that, and then shook his head. "He is very close, but not my favorite. Not just now, anyway."

"Well, who is it?"

The insistence in Derek's voice was clear now. Kieron got up from his chair, and walked over to the bench and sat there.

For a moment, Derek simply watched him, and then got up and came over and sat beside him, an arm's length away. "You won't say?"

Keiron took a breath, realizing now that there was more here than just a game. And that, somehow, for a moment of time, anyway, Derek had taken the upper hand. So...he deserved an answer. "I don't know how he would react, if he knew how I felt about him."

Derek released a small gasp. " do you feel about him?"

Keiron turned then, wondering, after all his angst and worry, if this was where they had been heading all along. He looked into Derek's eyes, and saw no anger there, no disgust - nothing that said he was not willing to hear the truth.

Kieron sighed. "I am worried how he will react, if he knows...if he knows that I love him."

Derek swallowed hard. "Love him? Like a brother?"

Keiron slowly shook his head. "No. More than that."

They watched each other for what felt like a very long time, before Derek suddenly smiled, and looked away. "He is a very lucky person, if that is how you feel about him."

But that there was something more there, some joy in whatever the other boy was thinking, made Keiron lean closer. "I fear he will think a relationship is not possible between us."

Derek looked back at him. "He would probably be surprised, and frightened at taking so large a step. With a prince, I mean."

"He would have nothing to fear. It would not affect his freedom at all."

Derek closed his eyes a moment, and nodded. "I would bet he would want to think about it." His eyes opened. "He would not wish to feel pressured."

Keiron sat back, a mix of elation and worry taking him now. "There would be no pressure. It would be his choice to make."

Derek nodded, and his eyes were now thoughtful. "Perhaps he will think about it, and let you know."

Keiron sighed. "Perhaps, he will."

For the next several days, they spoke no more of favorites. But Kieron detected a change in Derek, one that seemed a blend of happiness and worry, with the former perhaps more elevated than the latter. Derek was a joy to be with, and they spent much of their time smiling and laughing as they went about their days.

The falcons responded well to Derek, perhaps sensing within him a desire for them to succeed, but with no blame cast when they did not. Even when they missed a strike and the prey got away, he always talked fondly to them, stroked them, and said he knew they would do better next time. At first Cedric frowned at this treatment, but when the birds began to perform even better, he thought more of the idea.

"I always thought you coddled your Faffhrd," he admitted one day to Kieron, after they had been out for a hunt. They were just ready to leave the aerie, to get cleaned up and ready for dinner. Derek had returned to his rooms with fresh fruit for Midnight, but had said he would meet Kieron shortly after he had bathed and changed.

Cedric eyed Kieron thoughtfully. "Faffhrd is the best of the aerie just now, but I always thought he could be even better with more disciplined training."

Kieron smiled at that. "And now?"

The old man laughed. "Derek treats the others in the same fashion, and they have all improved noticeably. There must be something to be said for having such a creature desire to please you."

"There is. I did not realize it, myself, until I saw how well it worked with Derek. My original affection for Faffhrd was born of some loneliness, I now think. But he knows now that I love him, and care more for him than for his performance in the field."

"Animals do know love," Cedric agreed. "It works as well for them, as it does for us." His gaze turned serious. "And how is that going now, for you?"

Kieron looked up at the man. "How is what going now?"

Cedric sighed. "I think Derek has not just been good for the falcons. I have noticed an improvement in you, too."

Kieron felt a momentary panic, but clamped his jaw and made to brazen his way through. "It is nice to have a friend my own age."

"Is that the way of it? You are friends?"

But now, instead of increasing, his panic ebbed, to be replaced with a weary acceptance. Cedric knew him better than anyone, perhaps. That the man knew something was now clear. "What are you suggesting?"

Cedric's eyes were full of fondness now. "I suggest nothing. But if you have not told Derek how you feel, it's time to stop dragging your feet, and do it."

Kieron simply stared at the man.

Cedric watched him a moment, and then smiled and placed a hand on Kieron's shoulder. "Son, you can get away with most anything at your age. And you a prince, on top of all else!" His grip tightened ever so slightly on Kieron's upper arm. "In two years time you will reach your age of legal adulthood. After that, the things you do will take on much more importance within the realm. It is best, if you wish to be with Derek, to do it now, rather than wait, miss your chance, and perhaps find another later on."

Kieron managed to find his voice. "And if I am with Derek now, and I am still with Derek when I am eighteen?"

The man laughed. "Then people will have had two years to get used to it!" He leaned down to smile into Kieron's face. "You think you are the only one around with such desires? You're not, by far!" The man straightened, but his smile did not wane. "Son, you need to provide an heir in the line of succession someday. Any girl in the realm would be happy to mother a child for you. But you only need to find one happy to be your wife in name, and enjoy the benefits of your position, while accepting the fact that your love is for another. You would be surprised at how well that works!"

Kieron's eyes widened to their limits. "You are saying there are other regals who do this? Who?"

But Cedric shook his head. "One day, you will know on your own. And by then, you will have developed the wisdom not to speak of it. Just as they will have the wisdom not to speak of you and Derek, should it become obvious."

"I can hardly believe this!"

Cedric sighed. "I would never tell you wrong, Kieron."

The boy closed his eyes. "I am most worried about what my parents will think."

"You worry too much." Cedric squeezed his arm again. "They love you, and that love has no stipulations. Take my word for that and put it from your mind." He sighed. "Kieron, I knew the day we met Derek in the field that you were taken with him. It was in your eyes, for all to see."

Kieron gasped at that. "Gafiel? Tiega, and Morra?"

Cedric shrugged. "If your guards saw it, it will never pass their lips. To such as they, loyalty is ascendant over all other things."

Kieron settled back on his heels. "I don't know what to say."

Cedric leaned closer. "What I saw in your eyes that day? It was mirrored in Derek's own. Smitten, the both of you!"

The prince could only gape at that, and Cedric sighed mightily. "Have you made any attempt to talk of this with Derek?"

Kieron blew out a frustrated breath. "Some, I think. It was a most strange conversation, but somehow I think he understood."

"And...his reaction?

"I think he was saying he needed to think about it."

Cedric contemplated that, and then smiled. "His conduct lately has been most joyous around you. I think perhaps he has made his decision."

Kieron was stunned. "He has said nothing!"

The older man laughed. "For a Prince of the Realm, you are sometimes too innocent!"

A minor annoyance arose in Kieron. "And what does that mean?"

"Have you invited him anywhere the two of you could be alone?"

Kieron blinked at that. "No. I have actually tried to be around others when we are together, so that he would not feel pressured by our aloneness"

Cedric laughed, and leaned closer. "Tell me...have you shown him the escape tunnel behind his room?"

The castle was filled with hidden tunnels within the walls, for use in the case of siege or invasion. Kieron knew them all by heart, avenues of escape should the situation call for it. " I didn't even think of it."

"That tunnel links all the rooms on that floor." Cedric smiled. "Including yours and Derek's."

Kieron gasped at that. "Are you suggesting...?"

Cedric straightened, looked at the big clock on the wall. "My, look at the time! I do need to make the rounds before dinner."

He smiled a last time at Kieron, and then turned to go, leaving the prince standing in shock. Around him, the falcons made small noises, but if they were opinions or judgments, they could only be good ones.

Derek opened the door to his room and blinked at him in surprise. "Oh! I thought it the valet again, with even more clothing. I have too much now, as it is." He smiled. "I was just coming to meet you for dinner."

"We're early yet," Kieron said, returning the smile. "May I come in?"

Derek stepped back wordlessly and pulled the door open, closed it behind Keiron after he was inside. Keiron turned to the other boy to survey him. Derek looked absolutely grand in his dinner clothes, though he always seemed to choose the darker outfits, less prone to draw the eye.

"The gold outfit would look wonderful on you. You haven't worn that one just yet."

Derek patted his breast, looking dismayed. "It is too fine, Keiron. After all, I am not a prince."

That is a matter of opinion, Keiron thought to himself. He turned, and moved deeper into the sitting room. "I want to show you something. Over here."

He moved to the wall on which an elaborate mosaic was inlaid, one of trees and mountains in the distance. Derek followed, and Kieron lifted a hand at the marvelous work of art. "You like this?"

Derek smiled. "It reminds me of the wooded field where we first met."

"Is that a yes?"

The other boy nodded, his eyes bright with delight.

"It has another significance," Keiron said. He moved closer to the mosaic, laid his fingers to a cloud over one mountaintop, and pressed it. There was a sharp click, and the cloud sank inward. "This unlocks it." He moved his fingers to the next cloud in line. "And this one opens it." He laid his fingertips to the cloud, and pressed hard. There was another click, followed by a barely louder clack from within the wall, and a panel opened inward.

Derek stared in amazement at the new opening. "A door!"

"Take note of what I did," Kieron instructed. "I pressed the first cloud to unlock the door. You can go through this doorway in a hurry by simply pressing the second cloud to open the panel, but that will not unlock the door, and once there in the tunnel, you could not get back into your rooms once the panel had closed again. So, the first cloud to unlock, the second to open. When you come back from the tunnel, you must press the first cloud again to relock the door."

"I understand. But where does this go?"

"Come with me, and I'll show you." They entered the tunnel behind the wall.

The panel closed behind them after a short measured time, its mechanism automatic, designed to keep the entry hidden. The tunnel within was lit well enough to see, but only just. This was accomplished by a marvelous system of mirrors, that stole light from the always-lit hallways of the castle and secretly redirected it here.

"This tunnel seems to go far!" Derek whispered, staring off down the hidden way.

The awe in his voice caused Kieron to smile. He turned and pointed to the left. "The next door you reach would be the storeroom between your room and Cedric's. The door beyond that is Cedric's quarters. And each room in this hallway beyond that point has an entry." Kieron turned back to the right, and started walking.

Derek wasted a moment in thought, but immediately hurried to catch up. "Where are we going?"

But they had already arrived at another large rectangle in the wall, obviously another doorway, and Kieron stopped. "This door leads into my own quarters, next to yours."

Derek gave a little gasp, and reached out a hand to lay it upon the panel. "Your quarters?"

"Yes. And there is a doorway into each room in this hallway."

Derek turned back to look at him. "So...someone could enter my rooms from this tunnel?"

"No. Remember, the first cloud I pushed in the mosaic in your wall? That unlocked the panel. Only if you unlock it from inside your rooms, can someone enter from this tunnel." He waved a hand at the entry to his own rooms. "It is the same with all of them."

Derek gave a small shake to his head. "This is such an amazing place!"

Kieron nodded. "It has to be. The times we live in now, though sometimes exciting, are gentle compared to past ages. In those past ages, the lords that occupied this castle needed to know they could escape if the situation required it. The castle was built in a period where danger was everywhere."

"I think I like the present times better," Derek decided.

"I do, too." Kieron took the other boy by the arm, and drew him along.

"Where are we off to now?"

Kieron smiled. "Be patient, and I'll show you."

They walked on for a period of time, passing a number of other hidden doorways, and then arrived at a stone staircase leading downward. Derek turned to look at him, but held his questions, though they were obvious in his eyes, even in the dim light.

They descended what seemed a very long way, reached the bottom, and found a new tunnel, running off at an opposing angle to the first one. This tunnel angled gently downward, and they followed it for several minutes, until they spied a door in the distance. They soon reached it and stopped.

Derek examined it curiously, noting the single handle in the center of it.

"Watch carefully," Kieron instructed.

He reached out, took the handle in hand, and first turned it left, until they heard a click. Kieron then turned it all the way to right, resulting in another click, and then he returned the handle to its original position.

Beneath their feet the floor of the tunnel vibrated, as if massive machinery had been set into motion below. The door before them began to withdraw into the wall to the left, and it was revealed then that the panel was as thick as their arms were long. No battering ram would take this doorway out easily!

Light spilled inwards then, revealed to be evening sunlight entering a short tunnel beyond.


Kieron led Derek through the doorway, and into the short outer tunnel. Behind them, the massive door ground shut again.

"That was not very long," Derek noted. "What if there were many trying to escape?"

"There are different combinations of the handle for that," Kieron explained. "But that one I showed you is sufficient time for one person...or, one person and a escape, should they ever wish to do so."

Derek turned to stare at him. "Are you meaning me?"

Kieron examined the other boy's eyes, and saw a new fear there now. He nodded, knowing he needed to explain. "Yes. I want you to know that there is always a way out for you. That you will never be a prisoner of this place. Everyone that leaves the castle through the front gate has to be approved. You know that. It could make it difficult to leave under certain circumstances." He patted his own chest gently. "I would also be informed." Kieron pointed to the sunlight beyond. "This way, you can always leave freely and peacefully, should you ever wish to go.."

Derek gave a tiny shake to his head. "But you are not trying to be rid of me?"

Kieron was saddened that Derek would even think that. "No. I very much enjoy having you here. But your presence always must be of your own free will, do you understand?" Kieron shook his head. "I do you this...for your peace of mind. Understand?"

Derek blew out a relieved breath. "For a moment, I thought--" he broke off then, and squinted ahead into the sunlight. "Where does this go?"

They walked to the mouth of the tunnel. It was screened by thick growths, but there was a clear way behind them, a path, that quickly deposited them on a steep hillside beneath the castle, well away from the curtain wall. Below them the valley spread to the horizon, bathed in golden sunlight.

"It's beautiful," Derek said softly. He turned to Kieron. "I don't wish to leave."

Kieron nodded. "I am happy to hear that. But I had to have you know that you could leave, if you ever wished to do so."

"So, now I know. Can we get back inside, and to our dinner?"

They smiled at each other for a long moment, and then Kieron led them back through the undergrowth to the tunnel, and to the thick door inside.

"I must ask you to turn away now," Kieron told the other boy, "while I unlock the entry. For while you may leave anytime you wish, no one may enter without the correct combination, and only...only a very few may know that."

Derek made a soft noise then. "Oh. So, if I were to leave, and then to change my mind...I could not get back in this way."

"No. I'm sorry, but this is a matter of castle security."

"I understand." Derek nodded and turned his back while Kieron let them back inside.

They entered, and headed back to the staircase after the massive door had sealed off the sunlight again. At first they moved in silence, each seemingly lost in thought.

For Kieron, he felt he had done his part to make Derek know that staying on at the castle was by his own choice. That way, if anything...anything disastrous happened between them, Derek could always find his way back to the world outside without any interference. For Kieron, it had become of paramount importance that Derek only stay on if he wished to be there.

That he only stay on if he wished to be with Kieron.

It was too much to think about just now, too draining. Whatever happened now, it was done. Kieron pushed away these thoughts, and gave a small sigh. "I'm hungry."

Derek turned to him, watched him almost as if he hadn't heard. "It must be a challenge to be a regal. So much to know, so much to worry over."

But Kieron was not to be led backwards now. He nodded, and they moved along a moment more in silence. Derek looked over at him a few times, and then suddenly stopped. "There is something you must know."

Kieron stopped, too. "You need not explain anything."

"I must." Derek moved closer. "That day we met in the field? It was not by accident."

Kieron squinted at the other boy. "I sensed no guile in you, that day."

"There was no guile. There was no trick. But I was there with a purpose. I had heard that you trained your falcons there."

Kieron took a short step back. "You planned to be there?"

A pleading look came into Derek's eyes. "I first saw you at the circus in Redland. Your party toured the show there. Remember?"

"Several months back," Kieron acknowledged. "I remember."

Derek closed his eyes. "I saw you there for the first time, and I thought...I thought--"

Kieron waited a moment, now not knowing at all what to expect. "You thought?" he finally prompted.

Derek's eyes opened, and now they held a plea for understanding. "I thought you the most beautiful boy I had ever seen," he whispered.

Kieron gasped, stunned to his depths. "No!"

"Yes." Derek looked like he might cry now, and Kieron's heart felt heavy at the sight. "I was captured that day, and knew I wanted to be with you. were a regal, a prince! What chance had I with a prince!"

"Yet you followed? You came to the castle?"

"Yes. I knew I could not be with you, but I wanted so much to at least see you again. I remembered my perhaps-cousin in Brownleigh, and I went there looking for work. He did not really wish to see me, but found he could use a free hand to help with the chores. I talked to many people while there, and I soon learned where you went to train your falcons. I decided to go there one day, in the hopes I would see you again."

"From the hill," Kieron said then. "From atop the hill!"

"Yes. It did not occur to me that taking Midnight along would be a problem. It was foolish of me! Faffhrd flew over us just one time, and it frightened her so badly she took off from my shoulder. I could not even call her back, without alerting you below. I became desperate to save her, and so loosed an arrow between her and Faffhrd."

Derek came closer now. "But I meant no harm. I meant no deceit. I just wanted to see you again! I'm sorry I didn't tell you!"

Kieron shook his head in wonder. "And yet...had you not brought Midnight along, we would never have had reason to meet." He was amazed by all the tiny events that had worked to bring them together. And that Cedric, in some amazing way, had seen within Derek something he had no been able to see, himself!

The misery in the other boy's eyes was so apparent that it made Kieron shake. "You did nothing wrong," Kieron said firmly.

"I did not tell you the truth," Derek whispered. "Not the most important part of it, anyway."

Keiron extended his hands, took Derek's in his own. "It doesn't matter."

Derek stared at him in disbelief. "It...what?"

"I said, it doesn't matter."

"But, my prince--"

Kieron waved a hand insistently. "No! I am not your prince! Don't you understand?"

Derek shook his head slowly, showing plainly that he did not.

Keiron leaned closer, until their faces almost touched. His voice, when it came, was a whisper. "I love you. With all my heart, I love you."

Derek made a small sound of disbelief. "You told me as much, that day in the garden atop the keep. It thrilled my heart! But then...I thought I might be wrong, that I had misunderstood. That it just couldn't be me you meant."

"You did not misunderstand." Kieron tightened his grip on Derek's hands, pulled him closer. "I love you," he said again. "You."

Derek began to sink to his knees - or, he tried to. Kieron pulled at him, buoying him up. "No. Stand. Face me."

Derek made an effort, and steadied himself. "You toy with me, my prince," he whispered.

Kieron almost laughed. "I do not toy with you, my prince."

Derek's eyes widened. "But--"

"My prince," Kieron repeated. He pulled Derek even closer. "You are my prince! Do you hear me?"

"No. I mean, I--"

Keiron shook his head. "Repeat after me: 'I am better than you, and I know it'."

Derek looked absolutely horrified. "I cannot!"

"You must," Kieron pleaded. "You have to do this."

" are a regal, and I am a commoner. I cannot--"

"You will," Kieron insisted. "Say it. 'I am better than you, and I know it'."

Derek's face held complete confusion now, and there seemed but one way to bring him back. Kieron pulled the other boy closer...and kissed him.

Derek stiffened with shock as their lips touched, but Kieron held on, wrapping his arms around the other boy, trying to keep him close against him while also making the kiss as gentle as could be. It was terribly difficult, because he was full of passion for Derek now, and some measure of that had to be felt in the kiss.

Slowly, Derek began to relax. There was a tweak, a response from the other boy's lips then, and then Kieron felt with surety that he was, indeed, being kissed in return. He held their lips together a moment longer, and then turned his head and pressed his lips against the softness of Derek's cheek. "I love you," he whispered again. "You."

They continued to press their faces together, until, slowly, Derek's arms came up, and encircled Kieron. At first their grip was gentle, the hug almost timid; but then it firmed, and then could not be denied. Kieron breathed a wonderful sigh, and pushed his lips to Derek's cheek once again.

And then he heard it, a whisper as soft as his own had been: "I love you, too, Kieron."

Keiron moved his head, placed his lips to Derek's ear. "You must say this: 'I am better than you, and I know it'."

Amazingly, the other boy giggled. Kieron smiled, but realized he was making headway. "Say it," he prompted again.

Derek took a deep breath, let it sigh out slowly. "I am...I am better than you...and I know it."

Kieron could not hide his delight. He grabbed the other boy off his feet, kissed him mightily, swung him around, and set him down again.

They separated to arm's length then, full of smiles for each other,

"I don't know what that accomplished," Derek said softly. "But if it makes you happy--"

"It does," Kieron affirmed. "Consider it an equalizing. Since you refused to acknowledge that a commoner is as good as a prince, I have made you a prince, too. Or, me a commoner. Take your pick. But the result is, we are equal and the same, do you see?"

Derek closed his eyes, and smiled. "I cannot believe this."

Kieron laughed. "You must, for it is real."

Derek's eyes opened. "I love you," he said again, almost as if tasting the words. He sighed then. "Oh, how many times I have said that to you in thought, and wished to say it aloud!"

"I wish you had. But now, you can."

Derek leaned forward again, pulled Kieron closer, and put his head on Kieron's shoulder. "I don't know what to do next."

Kieron closed his own eyes. "We go about our days as if nothing has changed. In public, at least, we remain as friends. But when we are alone together--"

Derek took a sharp breath, drew his head back. "What then?"

Kieron laughed. "I think you'll know what to do. I think...we both will know." He shook his head then. "I can't believe this is resolved so well, so quickly."

Derek smiled, his eyes bright with affection. "Tell me again, please?"

"I love you," Kieron repeated, laughing. "And as many times as you'd like to hear."

The other boy sighed happily. "I have never been loved before."

Kieron thought that immeasurably sad. He squeezed the other boy gently. "Expect much of it from now on." He sighed then, hating to disperse the magic that had engulfed them. But-- "We should be moving along. Cedric will wonder where we are."

Derek laughed at that, and they started up again, walking ever so closely together now. The happiness in them was clear, but that neither wished to share intimate thoughts now was just as plain. The wall had broken, the flood come forth. They both needed time to think, to absorb this new thing they had discovered. To get ready for what came next, if that was at all possible.

The talk turned to what the table might provide that evening. There were a number of dishes that were among Kieron's favorites, but his orders to the kitchen staff had always been to surprise him. Favorite dishes or not, who wanted to eat the same thing each day? Everything that came from the castle kitchens was good to eat. No matter what the evening menu was that night, it would be fine.

And particularly this very special evening. Keiron knew that the food would be wonderful, no matter what it might be. And the company, better than any he had ever entertained. The circle had come full about, and closed upon its own tail.

They reached Derek's rooms again, and entered them simply by pushing the handle on the tunnel door. Once back in the sitting room, the panel closed again, leaving no sign of its presence.

"Now, remember," Kieron said, pointing at the mosaic. "You must push that first cloud again to lock the door."

Derek turned to him, wearing a curiously mischievous smile. "But as it is now, someone could enter my rooms at night from the tunnel? And perhaps find me waiting, eagerly?"

As the words sunk in, Kieron felt his face grow warm, and a faint stirring down below at the very idea. "Yes."

"A prince, perhaps?"

Keiron nodded. "Or a newly-born commoner, come to visit his prince."

Derek looked at the mosaic a moment longer, but made no move to touch it. Instead, he moved a little closer to Keiron, and took his hand in his own. His eyes were bright with warmth.

"Then come with me, whichever you may be. Prince or commoner, it matters not, my love." He smiled his beautiful smile. "We do not wish to keep Cedric waiting."


This story is part of the 2024 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: I'm Better Than You and I Know It". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 29 August 2023 to 20 September 2023 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the challenge home page.

The challenge was to write a story inspired by this picture:

2024 Inspired by a Picture Challenge - I'm Better Than You and I Know It

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The Sport of Kings

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