The Case of the Short, Short Prince

by Geron Kees

Chapter 25

The great hall of the Prince Sedwick was as they had last seen it, though this time the seating at the long table set before the large hearth was more completely filled. The Prince sat at one end, in the chair that was the most ornate of the lot, while Raimey, Mort, and Miles sat at their own table to the prince's rear. To the left hand of the prince sat Jamie and his group, with Garvin at Jamie's other hand, followed by Dorf, Geert, Irik, Bastyin, and Gorge. Snave stood by the corner of the table between the prince and Jamie, leaving a clear span of tabletop across which the two could easily talk to each other.

Across from Jamie sat Getrell, the prince's chief defender and most loyal right hand, looking fascinated by what was going on around him. Next to him sat Kundun, chief mage of the castle and therefore the realm, with his loyal assistants, Lestho and Pallin. The several empty seats on that side of the table beyond those four only served to accent how much larger Jamie's own party had grown since the last time they had been seated there.

"An amazing journey you've had thus far, Jamie," the prince said, after the extent of their trip through the Forest of Night thus far had been recounted. Jamie's friends had each been allowed to express their thoughts on the travels, and Irik and Bastyin and Gorge had seemed especially delighted to reveal their own ideas on what was happening in the lowlands of the forest, and what the mages at Methuwan might be up to. The prince and his people had listened to everyone respectfully and attentively, and it had made a grand impression on the visitors from the forest, especially. It saddened Jamie to think that kindness and acceptance from humans was so alien a concept to them, yet such was the extent of their encounters with the human mages of the forest, showing disinterest or hostility, with nothing in between.

The prince followed up his statement with a smile. "And I do like the name Jamie so much better than Thorvil. Jamie sounds far less stern and uncompromising."

Jamie felt his face warm, but managed to smile anyway. "Um...yes. My friends all call me Jamie."

"Then we are agreed on two things: that we are friends, and that I will call you Jamie." The prince smiled a moment longer, and then turned his gaze on Kundun. "What think you of this amazing tale, my loyal friend?"

Kundun smiled himself, his eyes briefly moving to Jamie before settling once again on his prince. "Extraordinary, Your Highness. But not at all hard to believe. I have heard tell of both Lodda and Porvus, and I have even met this Skoda once before, at the marketplace in Arthros, when there on business."

Jamie felt a shock at hearing that, and turned to look at Snave. "Someone who knows him!"

Snave made a slightly disrespectful sound. "Someone who knew him, actually, for he is no more."

Garvin sighed, perhaps a bit sadly. "He deserves the respect that all dead deserve, doesn't he?"

"No." The gargoyle's voice was matter-of-fact. "He is no more in death than he was in life. A vile, nasty sort, by the witness of my own eyes, and one determined to destroy rather than create. The world is well rid of him, and I am hoping the same can soon be said about his brother, Lodda, and both Porvus and Urvan, as well."

Getrell cocked his head slightly to one side and narrowed his eyes speculatively at Snave. "Such venom! These other mages must truly be men of mean hearts. But...having seen for myself the casual way in which Urvan spread ills all about himself, I can fully understand your sentiments, my wooden friend. I would surely like to get my hands on that one, myself, and teach him a thing or two of justice!"

Jamie leaned forward, and smiled at Getrell. "Be careful what you wish for, Sir Knight." He turned his smile to Kundun. "I am interested to hear of this meeting with Skoda."

Kundun nodded, and settled back in his seat. "It was, oh...a dozen years past, at least. I was attending the magick fair at the marketplace in Arthros. You know of it?"

Jamie nodded. "Yes. Master Thorvil often goes there himself after attending the Conference on the Arts. He is there even now, unless he has returned."

"He has not," Lestho inserted quickly. "Kundun has left orders that Thorvil be contacted upon his return. Thorvil's shop is still sealed."

"I did not wish him to worry over you," Kundun explained. "To return and find his shop empty of those he left to see to it would not be a good thing."

Jamie turned to Garvin a moment. "He should have been back by now, shouldn't he?"

"Yes. But you know the master. He can get involved in things very easily. It would not be the first time he was late returning from a journey."

"Definitely not," Snave added. "And if I recall correctly, he said he would be gone about a week. Take your cue from that, Jamie."

Jamie nodded and returned his gaze to Kundun. "I'm sorry. Please continue."

The old mage smiled, as if he was more than used to such side trips. "I was at the stall of that fox, old Marthin of Brenos, a seller of charms and hexes."

Jamie smiled. "I have heard Thorvil speak of him. And well, too."

"Yes. A witch's heart in a mage's body, that one. As fine at producing charms and hexes as any witch I have ever known." Kundun nodded to accent that description. "Easy enough to spend some time at his stall, for there is much of use there to see. It was late in the day, the sun low on the horizon. I was examining a de manu laruam - a hand of the specter - when a commotion at a nearby stall drew my attention."

"This Skoda, I would presume?" the prince asked, frowning.

"It was. He was at the stall of another seller of hexes, one I did not know. And did not care to know, for he had the look of the dark of night about him. Wenmos, was his name, I recall. Skoda had apparently taken umbrage at something this Wenmos had said, and was even then telling him quite loudly what he thought of it."

Jamie nodded, recalling the fierce visage of the bearded old mage. "An intimidating fellow."

"Somewhat, especially when in temper. Wenmos was even then deciding he had spoken once too many times to the wise, and was making placating motions to Skoda. But that mage was angry, and displaying his mood most convincingly."

"What over?" Garvin asked, shaking his head. "Some trinket, perhaps?"

"It appeared to be a wristlet of some sort," Kundun returned, holding up his own wrist and absently circling it with his fingers. "And some ugly thing it was, too."

Jamie had a sudden suspicion, and dug quickly into his hidden pocket and produced the strangler's hex that Dorf had removed from the deceased mage's wrist, and laid it on the table in front of him. "This one, perhaps?"

Kundun leaned forward to examine the hex, and then his eyes went wide. "It looks to be the very one, Jamie!"

Jamie nodded, and picked up the wristlet. "Taken from Skoda, after his passing. It is a strangler's tool, a garrotte of the mind, if you will. Skoda almost did me in with it, before I overcame him."

Garvin laid a hand on Jamie's other arm, and squeezed it gently and reassuringly. "It was not up to its task with you, my Jamie."

The prince smiled, and Getrell raised a hand and unobtrusively hid his own smile, though his eyes gave it all away with a single glance.

"I fear less for Jamie's safety with you at his side, dear Garvin," Sedwick said. He leaned forward and peered at the hex, and his face immediately darkened at the sight of the incised faces on the beads. "Ugly thing, it is. The work of a cruel mind."

"That would be Wenmos," Kundun supplied. "Interestingly, I never saw him at the market in Arthros after that."

"Perhaps finally becoming accountable to his past," Garvin put in, sighing. "One cannot go about laying evil upon others, and expect that it will never return to strike an even balance at home."

Kundun nodded at that. "As Skoda has now well learned."

Jamie gave a weary sigh at that. "It is against my nature to strike a man down."

Sedwick reached past Snave and patted Jamie's hand warmly. "Setting right the ills of the world is not an easy task. My father feels as you, and yet has needed to act more than once to ensure that justice prevails in his kingdom. It is not an easy task, but a necessary one. Some men are simply too evil to be allowed to roam loose among gentler spirits."

"Some women, too," Kundun said quietly. The note of sadness in his voice was clear, but no one wished to ask further.

Sedwick nodded as if he understood, though. His eyes settled on Kundun with sympathy in their depths. "Some are simply ill-born, at odds with the flow of the things of life. I have no wish to harm others, myself, but have learned that saving life sometimes requires the taking of life." His gaze moved back to Jamie. "You seem to have learned this very difficult lesson already."

"Yes." Jamie sighed, but then turned and flashed a grin at Sir Dorf. "A wise man has counseled me on this, and his words have proven true."

The shadow of a smile crossed the knight's face, and landed full on in his eyes. "Some are quick to grasp necessity. And to take care, even then, that necessity never outweighs proper judgment."

For a moment the table was silent.

"The task at hand is not an easy one," Kundun said then. "And it grows by the minute, as well." He leaned forward on the tabletop to smile at Jamie. "Should you even be here now, while the world holds its breath?"

Jamie laughed at that. "The world can wait, I think. We are here on a task of great import. To insure that those things we have learned on our journey are not lost, should we fail to return from this quest."

Jamie heard a gasp then, and looked beyond the prince to see Raimey staring at him from the other table. The fear in his eyes was plain. Mort and Miles were also staring, their expressions equally unsettled.

"Not that we feel that will happen," Jamie continued, gently. "A precaution, only."

Sedwick did not miss the reaction of his lads, and his own face briefly entertained sorrow at the idea of this group before him lost forever. But then he cleared his throat softly, visibly gathered himself, and nodded. "How can we help?"

Jamie looked around the table. "I would like to teach Kundun our new magicks. He can then choose to share them as he wills with Lestho and Pallin. The broader the dispersion of these techniques, the more the chance that they will not be lost. Then, should the very unthinkable happen...there will be someone to carry on the fight."

Jamie couldn't help letting his eyes move to Raimey's again. He smiled at the the boy, who visibly fortified himself and smiled back.

"What do we need?" Kundun asked. Despite the interest in learning he could not quite hide, there was a visible shadow of resignation in his eyes. That he understood the need to safeguard this new knowledge was clear.

"A quiet place in your workshop, your own presence, and some time left undisturbed."

The older mage nodded. "Easy enough to provide. Say the when of it, and it shall be done."

"No better time than the present," Jamie said. He turned to Garvin, and smiled at him. "Will you wait here? And entertain our hosts?"

"I shall tell them stories of our adventures," Garvin returned, smiling. "They will be so enchanted they will scarcely notice the time passing."

Jamie laughed, patted his friend on the arm, and then stood. "Kundun? Shall we?"

The old mage rose and bowed his head at Sedwick. "By your leave?"

"Of course. "Sedwick smiled at Jamie. "Try to bring my chief mage back in one piece?"

Jamie grinned. "I shan't break him, I think. He is too sturdy for that!"

Kundun smiled, and came around the table. "Shall we?"

Jamie nodded, and reached out a hand and dropped it on the older mage's arm. "I can translocate us there. It will be quicker."

A brief flash of green light filled the room, and then Jamie and Kundun were gone.

Kundun took a deep breath, and opened his eyes. "Quite an alarming application, I must say."

Jamie smiled. "It is that. At least I was able to prepare you. The first time it happened to me, I had no idea what to expect at all."

They were standing together in the nether, while Flitch observed.

Kundun rubbed his bearded chin and nodded. "I feel the change to my inner self, somehow. Fortified, in a way."

"Yes. You now have all the protections. These applications will safeguard you against the Breath of the Dragon, against any attempts to influence your thoughts or reality, and allow you to see the auras and knacks of other mages. You have also received the magick that memorizes other magicks immediately as they are tied, and now we can get started trading knowledge."

Kundun laughed. "Trading knowledge? I have a feeling I will learn more from you than you will from me."

"I don't." Jamie shrugged, but allowed himself a smile. "I made the leap from apprentice learning the basics to practicing some very advanced skills, all in the space of a very short time. But in that leap I passed over all those magicks that lie in the middle. I have little doubt that you can teach me much."

Flitch waved one of his branch-like arms. "Fascinating, the way your journey is progressing, Jamie. You seem to recruit some very marvelous people along the way."

Jamie smiled at the nether being, and then at Kundun. "I certainly think so."

Flitch turned to Kundun. "Your age would seem to be the most advanced of any that Jamie has brought here yet. At least in human form. I sense the span of time, or at least the one in your world, and can relate it to time in my own. Your kind would seem to live as long as my own."

"Not all of us," Jamie said then. "Just those that have the knack for magick. Those without that knack lead shorter lives, sadly."

"It's the way of things," Kundun agreed. "And it is not an easy thing to get used to, Jamie. Friends will come and go in your life. Not all will be around for as long as you would wish."

"I know. And it pains me to consider that Sedwick, Raimey, and others I know and care for will be gone long before my own time comes. To live for a lengthy span while others do not seems so unfair."

Kundun considered that a moment, and then nodded, as if to himself. His gaze, when it fixed again on Jamie, held a discernible note of import. "Once, all men lived shorter lives, Jamie. There was no magick in the world at all."

Jamie stared at the elder mage. "No magick? But that...I have heard tell that once, all men were mages." He frowned than. "Though our Snave has put forth some convincing speculation that it was not that way at all."

Kundun gave a slow shake of his head. "It was not. The history of our world is a study of mine, Jamie. As it was with my father, and his father before him. I have in my library several texts from the interim period, just after the great wars of the ancients, written by mages who speak of a time when no men had knacks for magick. Science was the ruler of those days, Jamie. There was no magick at all."

Jamie remembered the talks he and Snave and the others had had on the subject, and nodded. "That is exactly as Snave has suggested. That the first mages to be born into the world were welcomed. But as their numbers grew, those without magick became fearful, and a great war eventually arose between the two sides."

"Snave muses well, Jamie. I feel that may be exactly what happened."

Jame leaned closer to the elder mage. "I would like to see these texts sometime, Master Kundun."

"I will show them to you. But you will not be able to read the originals, unless your knack for languages is strong. They are written in a script I cannot name, and only a talent for languages in my grandfather's knack has allowed translations to be made."

Jamie's eyes widened. "Your grandfather! These texts must be old, indeed!"

"Older even than that. Handed down within my family for many generations, only finally translated in my father's father's time. My grandfather collected books, and had an extreme talent for languages. When these texts came to him from his own father, he recognized the language as an ancient one. Another tome in his collection was written in the same tongue, but had been annotated by someone later, in a language with which my grandfather was familiar. He used the start that other tome gave him to translate these new texts entirely."

"A difficult job," Jamie decided, recalling his own effort in such areas. "But the texts were in your family before your grandfather's time?"

"Yes. My family had held them for long before that. From times when our family history is quite dim, in fact. These texts tell of--" Kundun paused, and looked as if he was considering the merits of revealing something else. "Can you handle some...perhaps difficult ideas, Jamie?"

Jamie couldn't help laughing. "I would like to think so. I have handled many already."

The older mage smiled. "Yes, you have." He nodded. "Very well. These texts say other things, too, Jamie. One is that our people did not originate here, in this world - on this planet. But that we came from another."

Jamie frowned. "Another world? What other world is there, than the one we know?"

Kundun leaned closer. "The lights in the sky at night? The stars? They are suns, much like the very one that lights our world each day."

Jamie emitted a small grunt. "This I already know. Like our own sun, but many times farther away."

"Yes. But did you know that worlds such as our own circle many of those other stars? And that the distance between these stars is so great that no amount of speed could get a man from one to the next in a lifetime?"

Jamie reared back. "Then how to travel between them?"

Kundun sighed. "What the ancients knew, Jamie...the science they had! It was incredible! A way was found to cross from one star to the next, without traversing the distance between them."

Jamie blinked, and then gasped. "Translocation!"

"Yes, of a sort. But not by magickal means. Not by the art we know." The older mage leaned closer. "The ancients performed this amazing task by means of machines, Jamie. Wondrous machines. The ancient's talents with machine art was beyond our understanding."

Jamie nodded. "We have met a few of these machines. They are forces to be reckoned with."

Kundun smiled. "Exactly so. The ancients could do most anything that we can do with magick, but with their machines."

Jamie shook his head. "And yet, they are no more."

"No, Jamie. They are still here. We are their children. The children of the survivors of the great conflict. We mages are descended from those among them that came to the ways of magick."

Jamie wasn't sure he liked the sound of that. "And the commonfolk? Those without a knack for magick?"

Kundun licked his lips. "They are the children of the other survivors, of those who remained on this world, and for whom a knack for magick has yet to come."

Jamie's eyes widened, and he leaned forward. "Yet to come?"

Kundun sighed. "Yes. It is known among the Council at Arthros, Jamie. Many elder mages and witches know. Your own master, Thorvil, would know. It is not a secret, and yet it is still not widely known. But...with each generation that passes, more and more children of commoners are born mages. And once done, the line breeds true, and all are mages after. In time, all men will be mages here, just as the ancient stories tell."

Jamie gaped. "All men mages! I...I cannot imagine that!"

"Yet it is true. Not all will have the knack for cast magick, however. Already, many are born with other knacks, other abilities. This diversity will apparently continue over time. Some knacks that may eventually be born, we cannot imagine today."

Jamie immediately thought of Garvin, and Sir Dorf. "I see." He nodded. "I believe you."

Kundun smiled. "Good. For there is more."

Jamie smiled at that. "I'm ready."

The old man's eyes returned the smile. "The texts have many stories to tell. Another is that the people of the forest you have told me about - Bastyin's and Gorge's people, and the Iricawa?"

Jamie nodded, feeling slightly breathless at the idea that those mysteries they had wondered over were about to be solved. "Yes?"

"The texts say that these peoples came to this world with our non-magickal ancestors, and were once the allies of all men."

Jamie was stunned by the revelation. "Our allies! Then why are they confined to the depths of the Forest of Night, and not free to roam the wide and free lands as are we?"

Kundun shook his head. "All secrets are not revealed by these texts, it is sad to say. But one other fact is mentioned, Jamie: once, the Forest of Night covered the entire world, and the devil's own spawn roamed to the four corners of the compass. Then men came, and tamed the forest, and indeed the entire world, and saved only a small remnant of what was here before them for purposes of study. I take that to mean the forest as it exists today."

Jamie was stunned to his core. "Why have you not mentioned this before? It would have changed the way we approached the forest on our journey!"

The elder mage watched him silently a moment. "Would it have done that? I think not. When you first set out, even knowing the contents of these ancient texts, I did not know the reliability of what they had to say. Better, in my mind, for you to face the reality of the forest as we know it today, then to view it through a perhaps distorted lens of time, by a history that we cannot be entirely certain is correct. For while my family has long revered these texts, only those that penned them know the truth of their words for certain. Better, it seemed, to take every precaution with the forest, than to approach it as something once tamed by men, and now loosened from their grip."

Jamie considered that, and then had to agree. It would have changed nothing to know what he did now. The forest would have been just as dangerous, just as large an unknown.

Still -- "This makes some difference, I think. If nothing else, it tells me that we know even less of the world than we thought we did. "Jamie mulled that a bit, and then laughed. "Which seems to be an ill getting worse the farther we go on this journey. There are more mysteries than things known here. But I must tell Snave and the others of this. It may matter later on."

"Will we go back now?" Kundun looked again around them, and smiled. "I must say, your nether is much nicer than my own."

"You won't know for certain until you go back to your own," Jamie pointed out, grinning. "Since Flitch was kind enough to share some of his idrinytz with you, you will now see your own nether for what it really is."

"Yes." The older mage tugged at his beard again, and then fixed his gaze on Jamie. "How long do you plan to stay at the castle?"

"Not long. Even now, Porvus and his minions search for us in the tunnels beneath the forest. I don't want them to get the idea that we have returned to Cumberstone Castle. It may make them come seeking us."

Kundun's eyebrows went up at that. "I would not want them here."

"No." Jamie turned to Flitch and smiled. The nether being's eyes reflected that smile back at him. "Thank you again, my friend."

Flitch somehow looked pleased. "It is a small thing in return for watching your growth, which has increased my own powers here in the aether. What I have learned from you is beyond placing a value upon."

"That goes both ways, my friend." For the first time, Jamie extended his hand towards the nether being. Flitch eyed it uncertainly, and then extended his own branch-like arm. For a moment they touched, and a warm tingle passed between them. Jamie smiled. "As satisfying as the last touch. We will return, Flitch. But I do not know when."

"This much I know, Jamie. You will return. Be well in your travels. Be safe."

"Thank you, Flitch. We will be as safe as we can make ourselves. You do the same."

Kundun turned and gave a small bow to Flitch. "It was a great pleasure to meet you."

"For me, also. Learn well, Kundun. It may make all the difference later on."

The old mage's eyebrows went up at this, but he just nodded.

Jamie smiled a last time at the nether being, and then returned himself and Kundun to the workshop beneath the castle.

They spent many hours the rest of the day trading magicks with Kundun, and with Snave adding many of his own. It was a very fast process now, a lock for a magick needing only to be tied once and observed by the others with enhanced sight to be learned forever. Even Gorge seemed to progress, and Jamie was pleased to see the small man's knack growing in size.

Jamie was amazed and delighted to learn so many gentler magicks among the fiercer ones, magicks he would have once learned in years of study as a young apprentice mage before becoming a man. Even then, an adult mage never stopped learning - not if he had any bent for the task, anyway. Mages - and also witches - varied in their abilities, but those that went the farthest with their talents were those that never ceased to explore and to learn.

Jamie decided it best to relate to the others the facts of the world that Kundun had shared with him. Snave, especially, seemed delighted that he had had the right of it all along, even if just as speculation. But that the world as painted by Kundun's ancient texts was true seemed more and more obvious to Jamie as that history settled into his mind. The right of it seemed clear. And that both Bastyin and Gorge seemed willing to accept it as fact was the final piece of the puzzle set in place.

"Stories say humans and Pertwee once friends," Gorge admitted. "Few believe such today." But then he looked around the group, and smiled. "Is easier to believe now."

Bastyin patted his chest twice in agreement. "Similar stories are present in the lore of my own people, Jamie. That once your kind and mine were the best of friends."

Jamie frowned at that. "You never mentioned this before. Either of you."

"Because they are just stories, Jamie." Bastyin shook his head. "And the evidence of our recent history would seem to deny them."

Jamie felt some shame at that, but nodded. "My kind are not all like the mages of Methuwan. In fact, we consider such as them to be evil, and in need of a reckoning."

"See that," Gorge said. "And agree with you."

Bastyin closed his eyes, briefly looking unhappy. "If only we had met just a little earlier, Jamie. My friends might still be with us even now."

"There is no looking back at what might have been," Snave counseled. "What is done is done. Justice is in the aftermath of an event. It is the only way there is ever any justice at all."

Bastyin opened his eyes and smiled. "I know." He turned his gaze on Kundun a moment before bringing it back to Jamie. "The people we have met here at this castle are a delight, as refreshing as a morning mist. If even a handful of your kind are like these, and yourselves, then friendship between our peoples would seem a most positive step."

Garvin smiled at that. "We are friends, Bastyin. Have no doubt about that."

"Here, here," Geert said, bringing his hands together in a clap.

Snave made a sound as if gently clearing his throat. "I think we are done here, at least for now. We have shared our new magicks with Kundun, and he has shared his with us. We are all the better for it now."

Kundun raised a hand at that. "Agreed. But there is just one thing, Jamie. If I am to pass any of these magicks quickly to Lestho and Pallin, they will both need the ability to see the magicks tied."

"Then I will take them both to the nether, and see that they have that ability," Jamie decided. "And ensure that they have the magick that remembers other magicks." He winked at the old mage. "I will trust you completely to share with them what magicks you think they should have."

Kundun laughed at that. "They are young, and somewhat impulsive, but they are both good lads, and fine students. Rest assured that I know their hearts and minds, and that only good will come from their magick use."

"Then I feel reassured," Jamie said, smiling. "Summon them, and I will see to it now." He turned to Dorf, who had been listening to the conversation with his usual pleasantly relaxed expression in place. "What say you, Sir Dorf? Can we safely spend a night here, and be off in the morning?"

The knight nodded. "I think so. Such is the breadth of the tunnel system within the forest, that our foes will not be drawing any conclusions about our whereabouts quickly."

Jamie turned to Snave. "Do you agree?"

"I do. I have never had any real sense that Porvus or Urvan have a lock on our whereabouts. What tenuous line they once may have had was parted after we left the inn of Sir Dorf's brother. The evidence is that they have only located us thereafter by use of the warning electrums within some places in the forest. Days have passed without them knowing where we are. One more should not matter at all."

"Anyone else?" Jamie looked around at the others, but all seemed content to abide by whatever decision was made.

Kundun gave a gentle sigh, and settled back in his seat. "The prince will want you all to dine with him. I know this without even asking him. He has a fondness for all of you."

"And we, him," Jamie returned. "And for all of you here. It seems fate that this quest against the mages of Methuwan started with Urvan and Sedwick. From that one wrong many more have been discovered, and perhaps the opportunity to set things right. I am amazed at the pathways the world sometimes takes to bring dire events to our attention."

"And as well the pathway the world has chosen to deal with these events," Snave said quietly. "We have been handed a task. But I can wait one night to get back to it."

Kundun rose from his seat. "I will summon Lestho and Pallin."

Jamie settled back in his seat and closed his eyes. His head felt just brimming over with new magicks, some of which now nagged at him, as if to say that they could be used to augment other magicks he already had. The lens upon his chest seemed to be quietly suppressing these small voices, as if giving Jamie time to rest and digest what had come to him. But that there would be new magicks in the making, he had little doubt.

"Another grand meal," Jamie said, sitting back in his seat at the table and laying a hand upon his belly. "My compliments to your chef."

"It is the least we can do, to send you back to your quest well-fed," the prince replied, smiling. He glanced up at the ornate clock above the hearth, and gave his head a small shake of wonder. "This is the latest I've had dinner in quite some time. It was a long day for us all."

Jamie could feel the day, definitely. The tall windows that ran along the far wall of the dining hall were dark now, night having settled upon the land hours ago. The curious fire-fly lights in their globes along the walls cast a warm light throughout the room, and the heatless fire in the hearth danced merrily, almost hypnotically, tempting Jamie's eyes to sleep.

"I have instructed our kitchen staff to prepare trail packs for all of you by morning, so that when you go back to your labors you will be well equipped with food," Sedwick continued. "If there is anything else I can provide for you, please say it now."

"A clean change of clothing would be nice."

Sedwick nodded. "Done. You and Garvin, and Geert can surely wear the things of Raimey, Mort, and Miles. You know where they are stored - please help yourself." The prince smiled. "You will find clothing suited to the trail there, along with the finery." He looked around at the others. "I will have my accoutrer come around and get your measurements, and we will have suitable clothing for you by the time you leave."

Jamie sighed, and looked around at the others. Garvin's eyes held a bit of a glaze, and Geert looked like it was all he could do not to nod into his empty plate. Bastyin looked as alert as always, but Gorge was settled back in his seat, his eyes closed. "I think we're all about ready for bed," Jamie decided.

"Not asleep," Gorge said, opening his eyes and smiling at Jamie. Jamie grinned, wondering how the little man had known of his gaze, but dismissing it as part of his newfound skills with magick.

"We should all get a good night's sleep," Dorf said then. "Tomorrow feels a day of import to me. I wish to be ready for it, if possible."

Prince Sedwick pushed back his chair and stood, and held his hands out to take in the entire table. "Then I suggest we adjourn for the evening." He settled his gaze on Jamie. "But I ask you, please, not to leave in the morning without a chance for us to see you off."

Jamie also stood, and smiled. "We would never do that, Seddy."

The prince's own expression relaxed into something pleasant. "Said with some fondness, I detect?"

"Of course. Tell him, Garvin."

Jamie's friend got to his feet and grinned. "Said with great fondness, I'm sure."

"And I believe you." The prince looked pleased, and cast a glance over his shoulder at Raimey and Mort and Miles, who also were nodding from the long and busy day. "Perhaps the night should be called for us all, then."

Everyone stood, and Kundun came around the table to stand by Jamie. "I have been reviewing some of what I have learned today, and I want to show you something before you go in the morning."

Jamie nodded, feeling good about that. "All advantages will be appreciated."

The older mage smiled, dropped a hand on Jamie's shoulder, and gently squeezed it. "Sleep well, son." He smiled at the others, nodded at Garvin, and then gathered Lestho and Pallin, and they headed off.

"A good selection you made for your chief mage, Seddy," Jamie told the prince. "A finer man I have not met in quite a long time."

The prince looked pleased at that praise. "And I had my doubts about him once, too. I am shamed by your words, Jamie." But the prince held out his arms then.

Jamie stepped forward and allowed himself to be hugged, returning what he received with equal pleasure. He had not forgotten that Sedwick was a royal, but that he was now a friend seemed all that really mattered.

Garvin was hugged, and Geert, and Sir Dorf, and then Bastyin and Gorge both received equally warm embraces. Irik allowed himself to be patted fondly, returning a pleasantly wolfish smile. Even Snave was wrapped briefly in the prince's arms, as much as his girth allowed, anyway.

Sedwick stepped back then, and smiled a last time "Sleep well. I bid you all a good night." He turned to Getrell then, and smiled. "Help me with my boys? They are asleep in their seats."

"Gladly, my prince."

Sedwick had done something that Jamie had missed, for several attendants appeared then to show everyone to their rooms. Jamie and Garvin did not need to be shown to their room, and smilingly dismissed the attendant that came to them. "Help with the others," he directed the fellow, instead.

Their room was the same room they had occupied on their visit before, and they knew the way well. They entered, and Snave offered his goodnight, and quickly found a place in the corner and turned his back. Jamie closed the door and latched it, and took Garvin into his arms and kissed him. "How can we not succeed, when surrounded by such fine friends as these?"

He felt Garvin nod, and then the other boy's lips against his cheek. "I feel as well, my Jamie." But then the other boy pulled back. "I will accept no other resolution than our victory."

Jamie wanted that, too, and with all of his heart. To complete this quest favorably, and then to spend the rest of his days with Garvin. Yet there was always that small doubt in the back of his mind, that refused to allow him to drop his guard, to say it would definitely be so. The future was unset as yet, and no portent had come to assure him that they would prevail. He had only his own vision of a future moment by one of the red towers, still to come, and the overheard words of two of the gray mages beneath the great dam that suggested that Urvan, at least, would fall before them.

And yet, nothing was set in stone, this he knew. paid to be hopeful.

Jamie sighed, and rubbed his cheek against Garvin's. "With you at my side, there can be no other result."

A small tapping came at their door then, and both boys drew back and stared at each other. "I have a feeling," Garvin whispered then, smiling.

Jamie laughed, his own imagination more than up to the task. "So do I."

He released Garvin and turned to open the door.

Raimey stood outside, looking fearful at having been so bold as to come uninvited. "If I am interrupting, I am very sorry --"

Jamie reached out and pulled the other boy inside, and closed the door behind him. "Look who it is, Garv. Our Raimey!"

Garvin grinned, and he and Jamie gently squeezed the other boy between them. "What brings you here?" Jamie asked, trying not to smile too broadly.

Raimey looked surprised at this reception, and then could not hide his delight. "I just could not bear the thought of you going away again in the morning, without me being able to spend a moment with you." That this sentiment was directed at both of them seemed clear.

"We were just going to bed," Garvin said, smiling.

"Yes," Jamie agreed. "To bed. We're exhausted."

Raimey's delight ebbed away. "Oh. And I am keeping you. So I will --"

He turned to go, but Jamie grabbed his arm. "Such a big bed it is," he said, glancing over at the canopied giant that stood against the far wall of the room. "So much room it has." Jamie gave Raimey a gentle hug with one arm. "It is said that in sleep, dreams may be shared. Will you share your dreams with us?"

The other boy's delight returned as if by magick. "Oh! Gladly!" he whispered.

"And we would share ours with you. It will be time well spent together, I think. Before we go in the morning."

"Yes, before we go," Garvin agreed.

Raimey sighed, and nodded. "It pains me that you must go away again."

For a moment Jamie considered that, and then nodded, feeling his doubts even then recede. "We will return. We will return to you again. This, I promise."

Jamie felt the truth of that statement, somehow. The castle and its occupants would play an important part in their futures, he was certain. It was not quite a portent, not something as clear as a vision. Just a feeling, really. But it was felt deeply, and Jamie cherished it now.

"So to bed," Jamie said softly, once again.

"To bed," Garvin echoed.

Raimey smiled, and allowed himself to be taken along. "Yes, to bed," he said softly, mostly to himself. "To bed, and to pleasant dreams...of the future."

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