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and I'd be cultivating illusions and courting some fragile little lily of a maiden." He accepted the flask back and took another drink. "Not that you need to apologize for having a knack with roses—but I don't think you'd want to spend your life among the flowers."

Gel rolled his eyes. "Gods forbid!" he exclaimed. "I'd die of boredom in half a day! Roses are all right for a hobby, but not as a life's work!"

"I'd prefer tending roses to being forced to spend my time cultivating a highborn maiden." Kyrtian laughed, the sound in­terrupted oddly by the jouncing of the carriage. "At least you don't have to make conversation with a flower, even if you do have to be careful of the thorns. It's easier to avoid thorns than try to keep a strange woman from seeing things she shouldn't."

He tried to keep his tone light, but his laughter sounded a bit strained in his own ears. The subject of wives and heirs had been much on his mother's mind and tongue lately; hardly a day passed without her alluding to it at least once. It was a sub­ject he was not easy with. He enjoyed his life the way it was, and had no real wish to bring a stranger into his home. "Ances­tors! I'd have to set up an entirely separate part of the estate to keep her properly secluded, and that would be as much of a bore as courting her would be! I swear, if it weren't forbidden I'd wed a stout-hearted human wench from right here."

Gel made a sour face. "At the least, we'd need the Dowager-House set to rights just to confine the girl in, and somehow keep her mewed up there indefinitely. If Tenebrinth, Selazian and Pelenal had daughters—things would be a great deal easier on all of us. You'd think one of your clients would have the good sense to take care of that little problem for us!"

Kyrtian replied with complete seriousness. "I wish they had. Nothing would have pleased me better to take one of them into my family line; they're all fine gentlemen. As it is—well, some­day soon I suppose I'll have to please Mother and go looking amongst someone else's underlings for a wife. Eventually I'll find a maiden who's of sufficiently low rank to be too overawed to notice my eccentricities."

"She'll have to overlook more than that," Gel warned him,

"Or you'll have her running back to her Papa with stories of how you can't keep your slaves properly under your thumb."

Kyrtian felt compelled to give his mother's counters to those arguments, which were the same that he himself had raised. "Elven maidens in most households are kept close-confined, Mother says. And a maiden of low rank should be dazzled by her new surroundings and too much in awe of Mother ever to question things. We think that as long as her servants obeyed her, she'd never know we do things differently here." He com­pressed his brows in a little frown. "I'd have to make sure that she was never allowed to abuse them, though ... and that could take some management."

Gel looked dubious, but only said, "If you'd just leave the wife-hunting up to your Mother, you can be sure she won't choose someone we'll have to worry about. She has entry to all the bowers, and if she can't find someone sympathetic to our ways, she can at least find someone who is too timid to speak up about anything, too stupid to care, or has been too closely sheltered to know what is and is not usual."

"I suppose that's the only real solution," Kyrtian sighed, and winced at the thought of a mouse, a dolt, or a frail flower as a wife. What a disgusting situation, he thought, frowning. And I'm going to have to do something about it fairly soon. Mother isn 't going to allow me to put it off much longer.

Gel snorted at his rueful expression, as a particularly hard bounce sent them all in the air for a brief moment. "Don't mope," he replied sternly, then added, with a crude chuckle, "At least you aren't going to be saddled with a wife who has the hips of a cow, the manners of a pig, and the face of a horse. You Elves are never less than handsome, so you won't have to wish for a bag to put over her head when you do your duty to present the estate with an heir."

Kyrtian flushed, feeling the tips of his ears burn. Gel had been his teacher, companion, and friend for as long as he could remember, but the human could be amazingly coarse, some­times. How on earth could he explain that what made him dread matrimony was the fear that he'd find himself bound for cen­turies to a dull, insipid idiot? How could he possibly get up

enough interest in a maiden like that to do his duty by the estate and the clan? Gel would only laugh, and tell him that it wasn't what was between a girl's ears that mattered—

If I could find someone like Mother, he thought wistfully, I'd wed her no matter what her rank was. Did Father ever really know how lucky he was to find a maiden with wit, courage, sense, and intelligence? What are rank and magic worth, com­pared with qualities like that?

"We'll have to tell Milady about the new scheme for a siege," Gel said cheerfully, interrupting his thoughts. "She'll probably want to have a hand in it herself this time—and I think you ought to give her a bit of a command. Maybe then she'll stop teasing us about our pastime."

"You know, you could be right." Kyrtian braced himself as the carriage hit a series of ruts that threatened to bounce them all against the ceiling, rattling his very teeth. This was the worst part of the road; in a moment, everything would suddenly smooth out as they reached the paved section. "Maybe if she gets a taste of this, she'll realize just how challenging it is."

My only other choice would be to tell her the truththat it isn 't a game, that Gel and I are training the humans to defend the estate if—or whencombat comes here. I don't want to do that; I don't know that danger is coming, I just feel it in my bones. Their estate was relatively isolated, and he and his mother certainly were not in the first social circles, but still. .. first had come the Elvenbane, that weird wizard-girl who had, by all repute, single-handedly engineered an uprising of totally unsuspected halfbloods. Not that he expected any trouble from the halfbloods—his people were perfectly free to join the Wiz­ards any time they wanted to, and none of them did. Still, to have a dreaded legend come to life and take down the most powerful Elvenlord on the Council, and do it with the aid of Lord Dyran's own son, who she somehow subverted—well, it had all of the Elvenlords looking for more halfbloods-in-disguise in their midst.

And when the Great Lords were looking for one thing, they might find something else they didn't care for.

Then had come a second rebellion, this time of the Elven-

lords' own disregarded second and third offspring, the "spares," which apparently involved a new sort of magic that disrupted even the most powerful Elven magic. That war was not going well for the Great Lords. It wasn't so much that they'd lost a great deal of territory, for the relatively small number of Young Lords who had revolted had only taken a few estates; the prob­lem was that they'd taken and held them, and continued to hold, and although Kyrtian didn't know this for certain, he sus­pected they were making themselves felt. They were a thorn, not in the side, but in the foot, and one which was felt with every step the Great Lords took. That made them edgy; always a dangerous thing. Kyrtian didn't like the idea of having an edgy, inquisitive Great Lord nosing around anywhere near his estate. Or his people.