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“Oooh, what was that?” Astoreth purred. “I couldn’t quite hear you, boy.”

She daintily stepped back, removing her silken slipper from the boy’s throat, and he rolled over and coughed, the sound echoing off the walls of the little garden courtyard. “I’ve got a name, you know,” he hacked, wincing.

Astoreth rolled her eyes and sighed. “Of course you’ve got a name. Everything’s got a name– even if it’s a stupid name like ‘Stavier’. That’s basic onomastics. Child’s play. But you don’t hear me calling the chair ‘Ilirien’ or my lipstick ‘Lanaliel’, and they don’t complain about it.”

Stavier Luminiar glared at his smirking tormentor as he dragged himself back to his feet. “I’m a man, Astoreth,” he snarled at her. “I’m not one of your damned toys!”

“Oh now, see, that’s where we’re going to have problems,” Astoreth said with feigned dismay, sashaying closer to him again. He was older and taller, but she leaned forward, her straight black hair framing her porcelain face, and glared up at him with eyes the color of sapphires. “And what you need to learn, boy,” she said sweetly, “ is that just because my father decided to pick you up out of that filthy mess you’d gotten yourself into, clean you up and make a showpiece of you, that doesn’t mean you have rights. Speaking of which….” She slapped Stavier across the face, hard enough to turn his head. “That’s Lady Duskflame to you,” she hissed as he closed his eyes in burning anger. “Or don’t you remember who’s in charge around here when my father’s away, boy?”

“Rioghan’s in charge,” answered a clear voice behind the two of them. “And our mother is Lady Duskflame.”

The dark-haired adolescent turned and frowned at her younger sister, who stood in the doorway of the courtyard with her arms folded over a heavily padded chestpiece, her blond hair in braids. “Mother and Rioghan aren’t here either, Cearalaith,” the elder girl snapped. “What are you doing here? And in those ridiculous clothes?”

“And when Ree’s not here, it’s Beirgin and Carragan,” Cearalaith continued calmly.

“They’re busy with their archery training.”

“So?” Cearalaith shrugged.

So I’m in charge!”Astoreth snarled, turning and taking several steps towards the younger girl. “Now what are you doing here?!

“I have a lesson with Stavier,” Cearalaith replied simply. “Father arranged it before he left.”

Astoreth folded her arms and sneered at her sister. “That’s absurd!”

The younger girl shrugged again. “Father says I need to learn self-defense. He said Stavier is a good teacher.”

Astoreth scowled. “Get your lesson with another of the guard.”

“Nope. Father said Stavier Luminiar. So here I am, and you’re making us late.”

“I am rescheduling you.”

“You are not!”

“Consider it done, Cear. Now get out of here.”

Cearalaith stamped her foot. “You’re not the boss of us, Asty!”

“Like hell I’m not!” she screamed. “When Father’s not here I am the boss of you, Cearalaith, and I am certainly the boss of an upstart piece of street trash like–”

Astoreth turned around to point menacingly at Stavier, and found herself waving at an empty courtyard. She blinked. She looked left – right – behind her – the boy had vanished, leaving no indication of where he had gone. Both gates leading out of the little yard were closed, though neither was locked. Cearalaith giggled, and Astoreth whirled back. “You did this on purpose!” she snapped.

“Did what?” Cearalaith asked innocently, snickering.

I’m telling Father!”Astoreth screeched, storming across the courtyard towards one of the exit gates.  She hesitated a few feet in front of it, looking at the other, evidently weighing which direction he might have gone.

“Telling him what, that you lost his newest guardsman?” Cearalaith laughed, but her sister only scowled as she flung open the gate in front of her, swept through and slammed it closed behind her. Cearalaith stood in the courtyard listening to Astoreth’s footsteps grow fainter and fainter down the cobblestone path until they could no longer be heard, and then she smiled.

“She’s gone,” Cearalaith called softly. “You can come down now.”

In reply there came a rustle from the apple tree in the center of the courtyard, and a moment later Stavier dropped down to the grass. He dusted himself off, walking towards Cearalaith. “I feel like a coward hiding from her,” he confided to the younger girl.

“Don’t,” Cearalaith said. “She’s mean to you. And you can’t hit her back, or do anything else about it. Getting out of the way is the smartest thing.”

He grumbled. “I don’t want her taking it out on you.”

Cearalaith smiled. “She won’t. But she’s going to be even madder at you now. Don’t let her catch you alone for a week or two, okay? Or the twins. She’s probably on her way to tell them you did something horrible and you know they’ll jump on any excuse.”

Stavier sighed and nodded. “I’ll be careful.”

Cearalaith frowned up at him. “I’m sorry they’re so mean to you. Are you sorry you came here?”

The young man broke into one of his rare grins. “As opposed to what, being in prison?” He shook his head. “Your father gave me a second chance – and Alezandra, too. I’m fortunate to have a roof over my head, three meals a day and a future that doesn’t end at the gallows. And there’s nothing your brothers and sister can dish out that I can’t handle.” His upper lip twitched. “If they ever touch Aly, though…”

“Oh, don’t worry about that.” Cearalaith smirked and shook her head. “They give Alezandra a wide berth. Beirgin thinks it’s funny to claim she’s got rabies, but that’s just because he doesn’t want to admit she terrifies him. Her and that lynx of hers.” She sighed. “They’re just cowards. They pick on you because they know you’re a good person. They think it’s a weakness. They’re wrong.”

Stavier shook his head. “I’m not a good person,” he muttered.

Cearalaith smiled at him. “You’re good enough for me,” she declared. “And better than you know, anyway. But I still need to have my lesson, or Father will be cross with us. Let’s head to the west side of the house? They’re replanting over there, so Ast and the twins probably won’t think to look for us there.”

Stavier nodded. “I’ll bring the gear. And, uh, Cearalaith?” He rubbed his neck, suddenly nervous. “Thanks for… uh, thanks. For everything.”

Cearalaith grinned. “You’d have done the same for me.”

“I owe you,” he added emphatically.

“No you don’t,” she laughed.

“I do,” he insisted. “Your father’s been good to me, but… of everyone here, you’ve been the nicest. I swear I will repay you someday, for all your kindness.”

He was so sincere, she couldn’t help but smile at him. “Maybe you will,” she allowed. “But come on now, let’s go.”