'Astor! My dear son!' said King Xeron delighted to see him, 'I hear you wanted to talk to me with a certain urgency. I hope everything is all right. Couldn't it wait till the family meeting?'

'No, father; it could not,' said Astor simply.

'Well, sit down,' said the King, making a brief gesture towards an armchair. 'What is there that is so urgent that it cannot wait?' He took the seat near Astor.

'Today, when you and Evert talked about the Druidess,' said Astor, 'you mentioned a wilder.'

The King let out a deep breath, he looked at the carpeted floor for a while and then nodded.

'If she said not to mention her words to anyone, unless a wilder were in Aquileia; why then speak of it?' Astor asked seriously.

The King looked at his son and nodded. The sky-blue gaze that belonged to all Lightrays was even more penetrating in the King's eye.

'That is a good question - my dear boy,' said the King at length; 'and the answer is that whatever that Druidess told us was going to happen, it would have taken place no matter if we spoke of it when some unknown, or better, unlikely wilder would present him or herself in town or not.'

'Yes, but playing around with oracles is not something done lightly. You and Evert know this better than anyone,' said Astor.

'Son? Did you come here to criticize?' said the King a bit sharply, 'or was there something you thought was important to add?'

'I'd never criticize you - father - or Evert. I know both of you are very wise and intelligent,' said Astor seriously.

'All right; so, why do you think we were wrong in our timing - my son?'

'Did you know a wilder was in town - father?' Astor asked abruptly.

King Xeron smiled slyly, 'Of course - Astor. Ever since you and your peasant boy visited the Baths of Aquileia.'

Astor murmured something about Ernell's big mouth.

'It was not your brother who alerted Evert and me to the presence of a wilder at the palace - Astor. You forget that Evert is Head of Intelligence. He knows all the comings and goings, at the palace. Of course, he would know about your lover.'

'Why wasn't I told?' asked Astor - slightly annoyed.

'I know that you, amongst all my sons, are the most level-headed and dedicated to the kingdom. Of course, Gawain is no less dedicated to me and Abaron than you are; still, you, for a long time, have sacrificed all you once dreamed of becoming, to ensure our kingdom prospered. It is why I gave you Ambrosia to rule,' said the King; 'however, in giving up your youth, you also worried me. With Gawain not fathering an heir, and you not even considering building a family in Ambrosia, but remaining a bachelor, albeit not quite a celibate one, I was afraid that one day Abaron would not belong to the Lightrays anymore. Then you show up with a peasant boy as a lover - not an uncommon sight around here - but hardly fitting as marriage material.'

'There are no laws....,' interrupted Astor.

'Ah-ah-ah! Astor,' the King continued, 'there's no need to quote laws here. I wrote most of them. However, you as the third in line for the throne, cannot just assume that you may marry anyone you pick up along the road, if it suits your sexual tastes. You are not Beral,' the King said his name with a little annoyance in his voice, 'or Erelan. You are a Duke of Abaron and must marry someone who befits your station. Love, unfortunately, comes as a second thing. Gawain and Amathen learned that already.'

'I did not come to ask your permission to marry Andril - father,' said Astor, trying to maintain his temper.

'So, his name is Andril. It is a nice Dunvalian name. From what I am told, he is also quite pretty,' said the King.

Astor paused a moment, 'Yes, he is - father.' That was all he said and bowed his head.

The King looked at his son and smiled an affectionate smile: 'Always obedient. That is what most I admire in you. Always ready to do as I bid in the face of your needs and wants.'

'It is what I was born to do - father: to serve you and Abaron.'

The King looked away from his son and closed his eyes. 'No, Astor. You were not born for that. For too long, you have put my needs and the needs of your country before your own. I do not think this has made you happy.'

'I am happy - father - because I do my duty with honor. And that has brought me the respect of my people,' said Astor.

'That may be true - son; but when you get to be my age, you wonder about many things and look at life from a different perspective. I often wonder what would have happened if Beral or Erelan, or even Astil, had turned out so dedicated, as you are today. Would you have become a physician like you wanted to? Or, for that matter, would Gawain be cursed as he is - to never have a son of his own?' the King said at length.

'I guess we'll never know - father. What we do know is that Andril may be the key to solving our problems and he needs me,' said Astor.

The King looked at Astor directly in the eyes, directing his gaze deep into his son's soul: 'This old man before you - Astor Lightray - is sure of one thing: he knows, as a King, that you will do what is right for your kingdom; and he knows, as a father, that you need this boy more than he needs you.'

Astor and the King looked at each other for a second, then Xeron spoke again: 'You know Andril has to leave and you cannot go with him. I am told that his powers are already overwhelming him. He must be brought to someone who can help him. I have spoken with the Archmage and he says that, seen what this boy can do, there is nothing at the Mages' Keep for him. And, since he has the spark, and is not a Cleric, Cebola is also not the right place. The only other two places where he can get help is Losfaloth or Iskerun, and I honestly hope it is not his destiny to venture in that latter place, forgotten by the Gods.'

Astor nodded and then he surprised himself, as he felt a tear run down his cheek. He turned his head so that his father would not see him cry.

The King got up and went over to his son, who despite being a fearsome warrior and a grown man, had always had a good and gentle heart: a honorable heart, worthy of respect, even in grieving.

The King bent over and softly kissed his son's hair and held him, as Astor kept crying silently for the knowledge that he had found the love of his life and must soon part with it.

While Astor was talking to the King, Ernell and Mallan were walking towards the rooms of Ernell's brother - Astor.

Andril had been busy cleaning and polishing armor pieces in his lord's room when he heard knocks on the door. He got up and went to see who it was. Thus, it was with no small amount of surprise that he found Ernell Lightray and another mage he had never seen before.

'My Lord Astor is not in - Lord Ernell. He has requested audience with your father - the King,' said Andril politely.

'We are not here to speak with Astor - Andril,' said Ernell; 'we wish to speak with you. Would you mind following us?' Ernell made room to let Andril come out, inviting him with a hand to walk with him.

Andril was a bit flustered but he did as he was bid. The other tall mage seemed interested in him but did not seem threatening.

Soon Ernell, Andril and Mallan were outside in the garden. 'Andril, I would like you to call up you magic for me - again. I want to show Mallan - here - what you can do.'

Andril looked at Ernell and then at Mallan with a bit of apprehension.

Mallan smiled and explained that he was Ernell's fiancé and that Andril was perfectly safe with him. Andril let out a light breath, feeling quite relieved. Ernell asked him again to call upon his power and show what he could do.

Andril explained that it was not that easy. Usually the magic would come out on its own, especially in moments of physical excitement. Mallan nodded and told him to close his eyes and think of the man he loved.

Andril nodded; he said that that usually did the trick and then he went ahead: he closed his eyes and thought of Astor. He recalled various moments of intimacy with his wonderful lord but nothing happened; the music could not be heard.

Then, he remembered that night at the Baths and thought of what he did there. Still, the music refused to start playing. Andril opened his eyes and told Mallan and Ernell that it was not working.

'Maybe, we ought to seduce you,' suggested Ernell.

Andril looked at Ernell with outright fear and Mallan looked at his lover askance: 'No! That won't be necessary!' he said with emphasis at Ernell and then gave an apologetic smile at Andril: 'Ernell has all the patience of a bull with sore balls - at times.'

Ernell gave a slight huff of outrage but decided that it was not worth it pursuing the matter.

'Maybe, if you keep your eyes open and find some sort of stimulus in the environment,' Mallan suggested.

Andril nodded and then he had an idea. He told the two Mages to follow him. Ernell and Mallan followed the young man all the way to the laundry house where Billie could be heard playing her pipes, as usual.

Andril told the Mages to stay apart and watch closely; he went to sit near Billie and told her if she could play - once again - the music she used to call the animals. Billie was only too happy to do so.

She started her beautiful tune and Andril listened. He closed his eyes and willed himself to be that music and to call the animals. Soon enough, his own music began playing. The two melodies harmonized and counterpointed each other and, in no time, small little birds landed near them; then, came the butterflies and, right after that, a family of squirrels came to listen.

Andril decided he was going to release more of his magic and let the music grow stronger; all of a sudden, he felt himself floating in the air. The music was so loud and majestic - now - that he felt he was going to burst. Raw power started to course through his body and, when he heard a child's voice scream to please stop, he looked down and saw Billie surrounded by a circle of flames.

Andril tried to stop his magic from hurting the little girl but could not rein the raw power that ran through him. He looked over at the two Mages who were staring wide-eyed at that terrible spectacle. He tried to tell them to do something but his mouth could not produce any sound - all he could hear was the music.

Mallan woke up from his daze and chanted a spell. He cast it at Andril and the music stopped abruptly. The circle of flames around the little girl went out, just as suddenly,. and the little girl ran towards the entrance of the laundry house, where her mothers, still screaming, grabbed her and brought her inside to safety.

Andril fell to the ground feeling sick. He tried to fight off the oncoming darkness from his eyes but he passed out - eventually.

'What do we do?' asked Mallan.

Ernell looked at his boyfriend and all he could say was: 'Astor is going to kill me.'



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