Chapter One

The day that Shaundar realized that he would never be a bladesinger was a beautiful day on the small world of Nedethil. Even in the far reaches of the roots of the great cosmic tree that the Northmen called Yggdrasil's Child, which was known to most spacefarers simply as Garden, the climate was mild and temperate. It was bristling with sylvan old-growth forest too, which made it the perfect colony world for the families of the Elven Imperial Navy members who patrolled Garden's roots policing pirates, which kept them in fighting shape, even though the Unhuman War was long over. The elves loved their unusual home, with its great roots and branches that stretched into some unknown plane of existence, and they called it the Great Oak, or affectionately, "Old Man" after Rillithane Rallathil, elven woodland god who was said to also be a great tree.

One of the great points of pride for Nedethil was that it had a public school, located in the port city of Theraspar, something that even pristine Evermeet could not boast of. This was in large part due to the efforts of Shaundar and his little sister Selena's formidable grandmother, Dathlue Mistwinter, who had established the public school when she came to live with her daughter and son-in-law after the fall of fabled Myth Drannor. However, since she no longer taught at the academy, the place was a constant source of misery to Shaundar. Elven children were usually given some latitude about their schooling, but Shaundar would have skipped every day if he could get away with it. Unfortunately, his father, Rear Admiral Ruavel Sunfall, was not very forgiving of this.

That day, Shaundar walked Selena to school with more than usual reluctance. It wasn't just that the spectacular weather was calling his adventurous spirit to go fishing or chasing frogs instead of immersing his nose in a book, although that was certainly part of it. He just had a bad feeling about school that day.

The two Sunfall children walked hand-in-hand past the spelljamming dockyards, where small butterfly-shaped ships and not a few merchant vessels were resting in port. Shaundar's cornflower blue eyes stared longingly at the ships. What would it be like, he wondered, to sail among the stars, just like his father? His heart leaped to the tales of battles with space pirates, monstrous neogi and fierce beholders, and to the descriptions of the places his dad had seen; glowing nebulae, flatworlds, water worlds, belts of thousands of rocks hurtling through space to be dodged like an obstacle course, even worlds carried around on the backs of giant animals. He would make a great cabin boy, he reckoned; he knew all the language of spacefaring and he could tell the time and keep watch with the best. Why in the worlds did he have to go to school?

Still, his father had said that he was old enough now to go with him on patrol if things were relatively peaceful, at least for the summer break. Shaundar could not wait! He spent most of his free time at the docks, read everything he could find on ships and spelljamming, and pestered the entire Navy flotilla of Garden and other spelljamming folk he could find with his questions, until they usually sent him home to continue the assault on his father and Uncle Madrimlian.

Distracted by pleasant thoughts of his summer holiday, Shaundar did not notice the approaching band of elven children until Selena caught his arm and turned him in their direction.

His heart sank. He recognized Laeroth Oakheart, scion of a prominent silver elven family, forming a barrier between him and the school's front door with several of his wirier moon elven friends. Laeroth was about ten years older than Shaundar and his friends were all about the same age. Shaundar was, unfortunately, their superior in the academic arts, and had surpassed them in both marks and in progress. They tended to express their displeasure physically.

"Off to class, Sunfall?" Laeroth trilled, his expression twisted into a smirk.

Shaundar sighed. "Just leave me alone, Laeroth."

Laeroth took a step forward. "You hear that, guys?" he announced to the pack of ruffians behind him. "He thinks we should leave him alone!" He jutted his alabaster face into Shaundar's own. Shaundar was already as tall as Laeroth, but much slighter of build; lanky, even. "Why should we? You think you're better than us or something?"

If asked honestly, Shaundar would have told them that he didn't think any such thing. He shared the opinion of almost everyone around him. He was a half-breed and therefore, he would never amount to anything much. He didn't really understand why the Teu'Tel'Quessir seemed to think he was stuck up.

But Laeroth did not wait for his answer. He kicked Shaundar's legs out from under him and knocked him to the ground. His face hit the dirt and his lip split open on a sharp rock. He wiped his bleeding mouth on his sleeve on reflex, and groaned. Not another uniform! His father was going to kill him!

The front door of the schoolhouse burst open and a small, blond-headed gold elf girl shot out like a catapult stone. Her sea-foam green eyes flashed furiously. "You leave him alone!" she cried.

"Narissa, stay out of this," Shaundar sighed. He got to his feet.

Her hands balled into fists and planted themselves firmly on her hips. "I will not! Laeroth, you leave him alone!"

"Who's going to make me?" Laeroth laughed at the tiny-boned elf maid before him. "You and all of your friends?"

"Yeah, that's about right," a quiet voice replied, and Shaundar smiled. He cast his gaze to the side to see a well-built young sun elf, golden-complexioned, with hazel-green eyes and a careless mop of midnight-black cowlick, approach the front of the schoolhouse. He eased his book bag off his shoulder and onto the ground. His eyes were fearless and steady. His body was tensed and ready for the fight.

Shaundar knew that things were going to be okay. Yathar was here.

Laeroth hesitated. "You're outnumbered."

Yathar was not deterred. "Only by one. And Shaundar and I could take you and all your cronies on the best day of your lives, with or without the help of the girls." He grinned impishly and winked at Selena. Her cheery smile answered him.

Laeroth never had the chance to put it to the test. One of the professors came out. Shaundar's spirits fell. It was Professor Lord Captain Durothil, Yathar's father.

"What's going on here?" demanded the regal-looking sun elf with flashing violet and amber eyes. They fixed on Shaundar and narrowed. "Sunfall, causing problems again, are you?"

Laeroth smirked, but Yathar stood beside Shaundar supportively. "No sir. Laeroth was causing the trouble, sir. Shaundar was just defending himself."

Captain Durothil licked his lips, but he could hardly call his son a liar in public. "Get inside, all of you," he snarled. "You are late."

Obediently, all the children collected their things and filed into the building. Shaundar was relieved by his narrow escape. He put a hand on his friend's shoulder to show his thanks. Yathar gave an almost imperceptible nod and smiled in return.

But Captain Durothil was displeased and he found something to focus his wrath upon. "Sunfall, your uniform is out of order again. I think you can spend some time cleaning up the classroom with me at lunch to learn the importance of cleanliness."

Shaundar sighed in resignation. "Yes sir." Laeroth grinned.

"Today," the Professor announced as his students settled in, "we study the destruction of Myth Drannor, and the human conspiracy at the heart of it."

Shaundar was confused. He knew all about Myth Drannor. His family had been formed just after the fabled city's fall by some of the survivors. His grandmother was a scion of the Mistwinter family, and before he had joined the Navy, his father had been one of the now near mythical Ahk'Faerna, a soldier of magic who defended the elven kingdom of Cormanthyr and the great city at the heart of it. But the Army of Darkness, mostly goblinoids led by a trio of fiends known as the Khov'Aniless, the "Trio Nefarious," had descended upon the elven kingdom of Cormanthyr and destroyed it. His father had fought at future King Zaor's side in the final battle, and helped to spirit him away when all was lost.

Shaundar's grandmother had made no bones about how elven arrogance and hubris had a great deal to do with Myth Drannor's fall. She told her grandchildren a terrible story of how, at the passing of the last Coronal and the apparent assassination of his heir, the noble Houses of the city had fought for the right to take up the Ruler's Blade; how one-by-one they were deemed unworthy and destroyed by the power of the Sword; how when others, first moon elves, then common elves of all sorts, then Sha'Quessir, had tried to take up the Blade they were cut down in the streets; how finally it had all degenerated into a mass of infighting and chaos; and how the Srinshee, High Mage guardian of the Blade, had taken it and the legendary Rule Tower and disappeared; and no one knew where, or even whether or not she and the sacred Sword had been destroyed.

Thus, this pronouncement surprised him. He raised his hand and was ignored.

"Many of the noble houses thought it a bad idea when the Coronal Eltargrim Irithyll permitted other races to immigrate to Myth Drannor," the Professor continued. "So we taught them our secrets, our magic; and of course you see how our kindness was repaid."

"But that's not the way it happened at all!" Shaundar burst out, unable to contain his indignation.

Narissa cast him a warning look, but Shaundar wasn't about to back down. "Oh really, Sunfall?" sneered the elf-lord. "So then, since you know so much more about it than I do, when I was there, who told you otherwise?"

"My grandmother Dathlue Mistwinter," Shaundar declared proudly, "and my father as well, sir. He was Akh'Faerna."

The Professor was less than impressed. "Is that so?" he returned with a raised eyebrow. "Well, I was Akh'Faerna too, of the rank of Arshaalth. Your father. . .ah yes, I think I remember him, Nikym, wasn't he? You can join me for detention tonight, Sunfall, and spare me any further pronouncements of the great Nikym Ruavel."

Shaundar turned red with rage until the rest of the class began to snicker. But he held his tongue. "Yes, sir," he acknowledged sourly.

Lunch break was bad, but after school detention was worse. Shaundar did his best to be respectful, polite, and obedient. He had something very important that he wanted to discuss with the Professor.

He cleared his throat nervously. Captain Durothil cast him a disdainful look. This wasn't starting out well at all.

"Quessir," began Shaundar, using the term of respect with which one addressed a noble elf lord, "I was wondering if you would consider taking me into your bladesinger school."

Professor Durothil said nothing for a long moment, so he pressed on: "I've been top of my class in all the magical arts next to Narissa, sir, as you know. I'm really fast on my feet too. I've been training in use of the long sword with my dad, and I can dance, and sing, and I can even juggle. I know you're teaching Yathar, sir, and I would really be grateful and honoured if you would teach me too." He bowed formally with deep respect, the picture of gold elven etiquette.

The elven lord pursed his lips. "Sunfall, you are a moon elf. I think you would be better off learning from a moon elven school."

Shaundar ran his hand through his golden hair in an agony of suspense. "But quessir," he insisted, "Professor Oakheart said that I should learn from a sun elven school."

The Professor's expression did not change. "I'm sorry, Sunfall," he said, his voice utterly devoid of compassion.

Shaundar stood frozen for a long moment as his dreams were decisively crushed. The training for becoming a bladesinger required the most exacting study over at least a century and that from a very young age to be any good at it. He was forty years old, and he now knew that no one on Nedethil would teach him. He was shattered.

"Ten extra minutes to your detention for speaking out of turn," Captain Durothil added ruthlessly.

This was just too much for Shaundar. Before he knew what he was doing, he was on his feet and headed for the door.

"Where do you think you're going?" bellowed the Professor.

"I wish you people would make up your minds!" Shaundar snapped back as he slammed the door behind him. He ran for the safety of the woods before the elf lord could see his tears.

He ran until he was tired, wiping his eyes in frustration. Wouldn't that look good for the gold elven lord? Bursting into tears like a moon elf! So much for sun elven decorum. Already he regretted his hasty action, but it was far too late to take it back. He wandered around in the woods for a while, trying to calm down.

After some time, he found himself at the little creek hollow where he, Yathar, Selena and Narissa often came to play. All three of them were already there. Selena was nestled in a hollow in the top of one of the willow trees, swinging her feet. Narissa was kneeling quietly by the stream, and Yathar was meandering around, randomly whacking rocks and dead tree branches with a stick. They all looked at him and he looked away, not yet ready to speak.

He knelt by the stream to wash the tears from his face, and the sun was setting at just the right angle to make the water perfectly reflective. Shaundar considered his own tear-streaked face.

His moon elven blue eyes were almost indigo in the light of the sunset, and his corn-silk yellow sun elven hair shone like spun gold. His complexion was neither the alabaster-white of moon elves nor a warm gilded sun elven shade. It was pale with a peach-golden sheen, like common moonstone. Even the flecks that sparkled in those blue eyes were neither the silver of a moon elf's nor the gold of a sun elf's, but an odd platinum colour that could be seen either way. There was a smudge of dirt on his stubborn chin and a scrape that he did not remember getting. He splashed his hands into the image angrily to drive it away and brought the water to his face, then to his lips.

"My dad's a jerk," Yathar said with feeling.

Shaundar did not argue.

"Never mind him," he went on. "I'll just teach you whatever it is that I learn when I learn it."

"No," Shaundar said. "You don't need that much trouble."

"I don't care."

"No," repeated Shaundar. "I'll find something else I'm good at." When he noticed Narissa appraising him with disbelief and a little pity in her eyes, he said, "Dad's taking me with him on patrol this summer. I'll be a spelljammer instead."

For a moment, he almost believed he would enjoy it as much as the idea of being a bladesinger. He met Narissa's gaze with a hard, determined look in his own, and Narissa's pity dissolved.

Yathar shrugged. "Let me know if you change your mind."

Shaundar was not going to change his mind. The dream had been too firmly crushed. It was better not to hope.

The four children sat in silence for several minutes, not sure of what to say. Then Selena announced, "The sun is going down. We should get back."

"Not yet," Shaundar pleaded. He was not ready to face the kind of trouble he knew would be waiting for him at home yet, not with his heart still so raw.

"Well, I have to go," Narissa admitted. "Dad will be really angry already." She put a comforting hand on Shaundar's shoulder and he gave her an understanding, if watery, smile.

Selena climbed down from the tree. "I'll go home too and see if I can talk Dad down."

"Thanks, little sister," said Shaundar with a grateful smile. They grasped hands briefly before the two girls headed home.

Yathar sat down beside Shaundar but fidgeted restlessly. After a few minutes, he could no longer contain his pent-up energy and he grinned at his friend, "I know something that will cheer you up! Monkey wrestling!"

Shaundar laughed. Monkey wrestling! Narissa and his parents hated it. He and Yathar would climb into a nearby tree, and grapple and slap at each other until one admitted defeat. It made them all nervous and it made a mess of the boys' clothing.

Shaundar scrutinized his uniform and considered it. Not only did he still have the bloodstain on his cuff, which had turned a rusty brown and settled in, but both jacket and trousers were now covered in dirt and grass-stains, and the jacket was even torn at the pocket. He must have snagged it on a low-hanging branch or something. "Might as well!"

Yathar clapped him on the back and helped him to his feet. The two of them then set about climbing as high as they could go into the biggest tree they could find, which in this case was the great willow whose enormous branches overhung the creek. Still angry and feeling low, Shaundar found greater bravery than he usually possessed, and he scrambled up to a high branch that teetered dangerously beneath him.

Not to be outdone, Yathar joined him on a similarly perilous limb, this one slightly lower because Shaundar, being in the lead, had claimed the higher ground.

"Ready?" Yathar pressed with an eager light glinting in his eyes.

"Ready!" Shaundar confirmed.

"One, two, three, GO!" they cried together, and they grappled like wrestlers.

Yathar was stronger than Shaundar, but Shaundar had reach, so the match was about even. Yathar broke the grapple first and slapped Shaundar in the shoulder. "Ow!" he yelled good-naturedly, and he grabbed Yathar by the hair.

"Let go!" Yathar laughed, and he grabbed a hold of Shaundar's wrist and tried to bend it back on itself. Shaundar leaned forward to prevent this and pressed his advantage.

Suddenly there was a groan and a sharp cracking sound. Surprised, both boys let go of each other, and then Yathar was plummeting to the ground as the branch beneath him gave way. He screamed with fear.

Shaundar nearly fell out of the tree himself reaching for his hand, but he missed, and Yathar fell anyway.

There was another sharp cracking sound, and then Yathar screamed again, this time in pain. He was rolling on the ground holding his shin. The tree branch lay beside him, and thankfully, not on top of him.

Shaundar called out his name and began scrambling down the tree. He did not panic. He remembered his father telling him that panic had killed more soldiers than the enemy. He forced himself to watch every step and handhold. If he also hurt himself getting down from the tree, how would he be able to help Yathar?

He immediately went to Yathar's side, and he could see that his foot was hanging by an odd angle. There was no doubt about it. "Yathar!" Shaundar cried to get his attention. "Your leg is broken."

Yathar bit his lip and managed to stifle his yells, but tears ran freely from his ghost-pale face and low whimpers escaped from his mouth with each breath. "What do we do?" he asked Shaundar in a very small voice.

Shaundar didn't know. "I'll have to splint it," he said, "but I don't think you can walk on it. I'll have to carry you out."

He started hunting around for a good stick to brace the leg with, and found one. It was frayed at the edges. Shaundar suspected it was the stick that Yathar had been playing with earlier.

He whipped out his pocket knife and whittled off the sharp edges. Then he lashed it to Yathar's broken shin as gently as he could manage, trying to remember whatever he could from his mother's knowledge of the healing arts. Even so, Yathar cried out twice and almost passed out.

"You okay?" Shaundar asked when he was finished. Yathar, unable to speak, gave him a grim nod.

Now, to consider the problem of how to carry his friend without hurting Yathar's leg. Shaundar thought of how a hunter carries a deer across his shoulders. He imagined that facing down would be very uncomfortable, but maybe if Yathar faced the sky. . .But how to pick him up?

His gaze fell upon a sturdy alder tree near where Yathar was lying, one that was only as thick around as his leg. Maybe if he could get Yathar to lift himself up on it. . .?

"You need to lift yourself onto your good leg," Shaundar told his friend. "I figure you can pull yourself up on this tree and I can lift from behind. Then I can get under you to carry you. Okay?"

Yathar considered the tree and nodded.

"Ready?" Shaundar asked.

"Yeah," Yathar gasped.

Shaundar squatted down behind his friend and hooked his arms under Yathar's shoulders. Yathar reached for the alder with both hands. His face was the colour of snow, with little trace of the gold elven gilt.

"One, two, three!" cried Shaundar, and he pulled as up hard as he could. Yathar grunted and tensed his arms. His hands clambered up the alder tree as though he were rock climbing, grasping branches and knotholes. Then he was leaning against the tree, balanced on his uninjured left leg.

"Break!" declared Shaundar, out of breath, and Yathar panted. Sweat was running freely down his brow and nose.

"Okay," Shaundar said after a few moments. "I'm going to brace you over my shoulders by your right leg and arm. Mom said that it's better to move the broken bone as little as possible, and I think that will keep it from moving as much. Ready?"

Yathar nodded again, too spent for words.

Shaundar bent down and hooked his right arm around Yathar's right thigh, and his left arm around Yathar's right shoulder. He pushed up with both legs and shifted Yathar's weight. He was heavier than Shaundar had anticipated, but the determined young elf managed to heft Yathar up over his shoulders.

"You okay?" he gasped.

"Yeah," wheezed Yathar.

With that, Shaundar started trekking along the creek bed, heading downstream and back towards town, wasting no more effort on words.

There was no telling how long he walked for. It felt like forever. It was almost dark by the time Shaundar saw the town lights. He did not stop to rest because he was unsure if he would be able to pick Yathar up again. His breath came in short puffs. His legs trembled with the effort. But still he trudged doggedly on. Yathar needed him.

When he finally came to the edge of the trees, and found himself among the tree and crystal buildings of their little port town, Shaundar sank to the ground in relief.

With effort, he eased Yathar down beside him. "Help!" he croaked, his throat without moisture, and then he licked his lips and repeated, "Help! Yathar's hurt!"

Somehow, magically, his mother was right there, her midnight-blue eyes full of compassion. "It's all right, my son," she murmured, her voice both comforting and ethereal.

She knelt at Yathar's side with almost supernatural grace and poise and adjusted his leg so that she could get a good look at it. "That's a good splint," Shaundar's mother told him with a faint smile. It carried more approval than the most effuse praise.

She began to unwind his makeshift lash, which had come from one of the straps on Yathar's book bag. Relieved, Shaundar started to cry.

Then Selena, Shaundar's father, and both of Yathar's parents arrived. "What did you do to my son?" Captain Durothil bellowed. He strode up to the three of them and slapped Shaundar across the face.

Shaundar, shocked into silence, gaped at Lord Durothil, who was reeling back his arm for another blow.

But then he winced and let out a grunt of pain. Ruavel Sunfall had Captain Durothil's hand in his and was twisting back on it in a way it was not intended to be moved.

"Raise your hand to my son again, Captain and you will regret it," he promised solemnly.

"Av, quessir," Lord Durothil growled.

The Admiral released his hand and the lord rubbed at his wrist. "How bad is it?" he inquired of Shaundar's mother. "Can you heal it?"

"Certainly," she replied in a deliberately mild voice, though her eyes flashed with anger. "I just need to set it first. I have taken the liberty of casting a sleep charm on your son so that it will hurt less."

With that, she gripped Yathar's leg on either side of the break and made a quick adjustment. Yathar's face screwed up in pain, even in slumber. "There now," she murmured, stroking his hair.

She re-splinted it using Shaundar's makeshift branch and strap, and though Shaundar had obviously missed the casting of the first spell, everyone watched and listened as Selene Sunfall chanted prayers of healing to Sehanine Moonbow, and made the sacred gestures that accompanied the ritual.

Skin, and presumably bone, began to knit themselves back together. She wiped away some of the blood left behind with her fingers. "There," she said with a nod. "Now take him home and let him sleep; it's good for his healing."

Lord Durothil lifted his son's unconscious body. "We are not done, Sunfall," he promised ominously as he left.

His wife, a small faerie elf with pale skin, silver hair and violet eyes, looked to everyone. "I'm sorry," she said before following her husband.

The Sunfalls watched them leave. "Let's go," Shaundar's father commanded. Shaundar staggered to his weary feet and followed obediently.

No one said a word until they were home; which, for the Sunfalls, was a modest tree manor shaped partially by magic and partly by craftsmanship. It was a quiet, almost plain dwelling, formed of a single great willow tree, much smaller and less ostentatious than his Rear Admiral's rank could have commanded.

Ruavel Sunfall closed the front door behind them. Shaundar knew he was in an amazing amount of trouble.

He fixed his son with that intense amber gaze. "So, what happened out there, Shaundar?" he demanded quietly. "How did Yathar's leg get broken?"

Shaundar's heart plummeted into his boots. He felt as though he were falling through a gravity plane. "We were monkey wrestling, sir," he admitted in a small voice.

Ruavel's brow darkened. "I see," he said simply. His hand came up to rub his temple as though he felt a headache coming on. A vein in his forehead was standing out portentously.

"So, let me get this straight. In one single day, you started trouble with your classmates, lipped off your professor, ran out on your detention, to go into the woods without telling anyone where you were going, whereupon you promptly engaged in an activity that you have been expressly forbidden from doing, causing your friend's leg to be broken due to your foolishness. And on top of everything else, you have ruined another uniform."

Shaundar did not know what to say. He opened his mouth and closed it again. The weight of his father's disapproval was devastating.

Shaundar's grandmother came to the edge of the entryway. She looked like an older version of her daughter, only where Selene was wispy, Dathlue was solid. Rather than wearing the draping robes and dresses of a spellcaster, she was dressed in practical leathers. She was not in the habit of wearing her sword at home, but it was draped at the ready on a peg near the front door. She was old enough that crow's feet and laugh lines had begun to form; which, for an elf, was very old indeed.

The Admiral held up a single hand, and in that gesture Shaundar read far more disappointment and dismissal than any words could have hoped to convey. It was all he could do not to burst into tears again.

"I find this very disappointing, Shaundar," he sighed. "I expect better things of you. Please go to your room and contemplate your actions. Tomorrow, you will go to school and undertake whatever punishment Professor Durothil deems fit; excluding anything physical."

"Yes sir," Shaundar replied in a whisper. He swallowed the lump in his throat, determined this time to show proper gold elven grace, and he managed to walk all the way upstairs and into his room before the tears ran down his face. Even then, he swallowed the sobs so that his heartbreak was his alone.

His father was right. This was his fault. If he had not climbed so high, Yathar would not have fallen. Why did he keep doing such stupid things?

On the other side of the closed bedroom door, Shaundar's father and grandmother were arguing. "You're going to take all the adventure out of the boy, Ruavel," his grandmother was saying. She sounded cross.

"Damn it," Ruavel exclaimed, "the boy is going to grow up with some decorum! He's a gold elf!"

"No, he isn't!" Dathlue growled furiously. "And you can't expect him to be!"

Shaundar did not want to hear any more. He went to the window over his bed and opened the porthole-style shutter to gaze out into the starry night. That was the problem, wasn't it? He was not a gold elf. But, despite his failings, Shaundar swore to himself that someday, somehow, he would make his father proud of him.

Reverie did not come easily to Shaundar that night. He tried several times to relax on his daybed and sink into the trance that elves used rather than sleep, but every time he started to drift, he would see Yathar's frightened green eyes falling away from him, and he started back to full consciousness.

After a while he gave up. He took the wool blanket from his bed and pressed it against the bottom edge of the door so that his parents would not be able to see light, and he lit a candle and gave himself over to reading.

The first book he fished out of his school bag was Yathar's copy of Hinue ath Tel'Kerym, "The Song of the Blade," which was the bladesinger's code and training manual. He tossed it aside onto his bed with venom. It bounced against the wall with an audible thump and came to rest on its front cover.

He found the dog-eared copy of the "Imperial Navy's Field Manual" that he had borrowed from his father instead, opened it to the section on semaphore, which he was actively studying, and brought it and the candle to his desk so that he could take notes. He dipped his quill and prepared to write.

He just about jumped out of his skin when the quiet knock sounded at his door.

Oh drat, the book! Someone had obviously heard the noise when it had hit the wall. Cursing himself for his idiocy, he opened the door; then he smiled, relieved. It was his grandmother standing there.

"Can I come in?" she asked pointedly as Shaundar stared at her, already standing almost eye to eye.

"Oh, sorry." He shook his head to clear it and stood aside so that she could enter.

She closed the door again behind her and studied him with her intense blue eyes. "May I sit?" she inquired, and Shaundar nodded.

Grandmother was nothing like the other adults in his life. She never forced anything upon him or demanded anything of him. She asked his opinion and honestly cared for the answer. She even asked his permission to enter his space and use his furniture or his time, just as if he were an adult and had a right to refuse.

"You never mind your father," Grandmother Mistwinter proclaimed as she eased herself gently onto Shaundar's daybed. "He just doesn't understand you; that's all. But he loves you."

"I know," he sighed. He did not want to discuss this.

Grandmother cast her gaze about Shaundar's room and he followed it. There was the framed portrait of his mother and father when they were younger; Ruavel in a Navy Lieutenant's dress uniform, Selene in a flowing golden gown and tiara – their wedding portrait. There was a portrait of Selena as a baby sitting on a chest of drawers.

There was a small bookshelf filled with well-organized books, and a table laid out with an army of toy soldiers in mid-battle, remains of a game played with Yathar earlier in the week. A wooden long sword and two short swords were hanging on weapon racks.

His short bow, which he had already used to hunt rabbits and the native oversized rodents that the elven colonists called niri "little bears," also rested on its rack on the wall, his arrows in their quiver and carefully tended; no sign of fraying on the fletching. He had permission to hunt monkeys too, but he just couldn't bring himself to do it. Their little faces were too expressive.

There were a few charcoal drawings of the family, Yathar and Narissa fixed to the wall. He didn't know if they were any good, but he liked doing them.

Her eyes came to rest on his model of the Realmspace system dangling on strings from the ceiling, with a full set of hand-built, hand-painted scale models of the ships of the elves' Realmspace fleet interspersed among the smaller planets. The Sun was even enspelled to glow softly, though it did not provide good reading light.

"You know," she said, "if you believe in yourself, then it doesn't matter whether or not anyone else believes in you."

Shaundar said nothing. He wished he could believe in himself. It was just so hard.

"Shaundar," she insisted in a tone that commanded his full attention. He looked into her eyes, which were almost radiant with the force of her emotion. "Listen to me. Your problem is that you are trying far too hard to be something that you are not. You need to be exactly who you are. Be true to yourself! And never mind your father. He'll come around, you'll see."

He nodded. Grandmother was probably right. She certainly seemed to know exactly who she was and made no apologies for it. He wished he was as clear.

"Don't blame yourself for what happened to Yathar," she added, almost as an afterthought. "He's just as responsible as you are. It takes two to monkey wrestle, I think." She winked at him conspiratorially and patted his hand.

That lightened Shaundar's mood. She knew just what was bothering him, didn't she? "Did you ever monkey wrestle, Grandmother?"

"No," she replied, "my friends and I used to chase each other through the woods with sticks. Monkey wrestling is much safer." She shared a wry grin, and Shaundar laughed, though he stifled it quickly so that he would not wake anyone. He had the same wry smile as his grandmother.

"Get some reverie, Shaundar," she encouraged him, and strode for the door.

"Good night, Grandmother," Shaundar wished her quietly. She smiled at him and closed the door behind her.

Shaundar blew the candle out, grabbed hold of his blanket and threw himself onto the daybed to sit comfortably cross-legged. That's when he realized he'd sat on Yathar's book. Quickly he pulled it out, but he had already managed to bend one of the pages.

Well, nothing to be done about it now. He straightened it out as best as he could and closed the cover. Tossing it into his school bag, he settled in for reverie, somewhat cheered by his grandmother's kindred spirit. He watched the butterfly-shaped ships dangling on their strings and let his gaze become unfocused.

Morning came far too quickly. After some delay Shaundar dragged his weary bones from his bed with a titanic effort of will. His shoulders and the muscles of his thighs ached.

He washed quickly in the washbasin because he was already running late. He took another uniform from his closet and quickly switched the pin of his family crest, a stylized shooting star, over to the new collar. Rather than throwing the damaged uniform out, however, he stowed it away in a drawer. It would be good practice to try some cantrips on later, such as clean and mend.

He then attempted to tame his yellow hair into a semblance of order, and finally managed to smooth it all into a tight ponytail. Only then did he go downstairs for the morning meal.

Shaundar's father was standing out on the balcony in a smoking jacket, puffing at his pipe, which Shaundar's mother had banished from the house. He nodded at his son through the window but did not speak. "Good morning, sir," Shaundar replied hesitantly. The Admiral turned back to watch the morning sunrise with another nod. Was he forgiven? He couldn't tell.

He went to the kitchen where Lianna, the head cook from the Aerdrie's Pride, which was Ruavel Sunfall's Armada-class ship, was making a nut-and-berry stir fry of some kind. It smelled like hazelnuts and starberries in a light honey-and-butter glaze.

Lianna cooked for the Sunfalls when she was on leave in return for her keep, since she had no family of her own. She was a high elf from a world called Oerth, which Shaundar understood was in a sphere called Greyspace, one of the three spheres in the so-called "Celestial Triangle"; the other two being Realmspace and Krynnspace.

"Morning to you, young sir!" she greeted him cheerfully. As much as the Sunfalls were in disgrace, they were still elven nobility. Technically, Shaundar would be heir to the House, being the eldest son; unless, of course, his father decided to name Selena as the heir instead.

He cast a sunny smile back at her. "Good morning, Lianna."

"Dawnfry's ready. Have you washed up?"

He nodded as he automatically took the silverware and set the table. Selena had already laid out the plates and serving spoons. She remained quiet until she saw her brother smile, at which point she cast a smile back at him and said good morning. He returned the greeting, and then steaming nuts and fruit were being spooned on to their plates.

They ate quickly. As they did so, their father came back into the house, after having first deposited the offending smoking jacket on a coat hook outside.

"Hurry up children," he admonished. "You're going to be late."

They finished their morning meal and put the plates away. Shaundar noticed that yet again, to his dismay, he had managed to dirty the cuff of his uniform sleeve. He groaned. Selena's was still pristine, of course.

Well, there was no time to do anything about it now. Shaundar turned it around so that his father wouldn't notice, retrieved his book bag, to which he hastily added the Navy field manual, and fled out the door.

Selena, who was not nearly as tall as him, struggled to keep up. "Wait!" she called out at last. Shaundar slowed his breakneck pace and waited, taking her hand when she caught up. They ran together for the schoolhouse.

Out of the edge of his peripheral vision Shaundar saw movement, and recognized dark hair and a pale moon elven face.

He managed to dodge the outstretched foot. "Run to school, Selena," Shaundar commanded, and he spun around and raised his book bag to confront his attacker.

Laeroth Oakheart and two of his minions emerged from the starberry bushes where they had laid their ambush. "You're dead, Sunfall!" Laeroth pronounced with an evil gleam in his eye.

"We'll see," Shaundar growled.

Confident in his superiority, especially since they did have him outnumbered this time, Laeroth closed in for the attack. Shaundar stepped deftly to the side and let him have it in the face with the book bag. Of course, it was at that exact moment that Professor Durothil emerged from the schoolhouse.

"SUNFALL!" he roared, and everyone froze where they were, except Laeroth, who found himself this time in the position of the one picking himself up off the ground with a bleeding lip.

The Professor closed the distance impossibly fast and took one of Shaundar's pointed ears between his fingers. He yelped in surprise and pain.

Delighted by this turn of events, Laeroth immediately poured out crocodile tears. "Professor," he sniffled, "he just smacked me in the face! My ears are still ringing! I wasn't doing anything, just walking!"

"YOU LIE!" bellowed Shaundar.

"Enough!" Lord Durothil exclaimed. "I think it would be just like you, Sunfall, to lay an ambush for the boy, low-minded as you are."

Shaundar could not believe the injustice! Tears of rage and frustration began to run down his face.

"Get inside," the Captain commanded, pulling on Shaundar's ear until he had no choice but to follow.

He hauled Shaundar up in front of the class. Yathar was there, Shaundar noticed with relief, and he started getting to his feet before he realized that he had a splint on his leg still and was forced by necessity to sit back down. Laeroth was smirking like a dohwar.

"It seems that Quessir Sunfall has seen fit to attack another student," the Professor announced drily. "Since he has no discipline, and his father the Admiral has forbidden me from striking him, let's see if we can't teach him some. Hold out your arms, Sunfall. Out to the sides, palms up."

Shaundar lay down his book bag, which had torn at the strap, and obeyed warily.

From a cupboard, Lord Durothil excavated two of their rather thick textbooks on elven history. He balanced one each on the palms of Shaundar's hands. "Hold those up," sneered the Seelie lord, "until I tell you to stop." With that, he turned to the class and began the day's lesson.

His father's admonishment, to submit to whatever punishment Professor Durothil saw fit to demand, echoed back in Shaundar's thoughts. So be it, then. He braced his shoulders and determined to hold the books aloft.

After a few minutes, his shoulders and arms began to ache with the effort, but Lord Durothil carried blithely on with the lesson, sparing no more thought for Shaundar Sunfall.

After a few more minutes had passed, during which Shaundar had begun to grit his teeth, he realized with a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach that the Professor did not intend for him to succeed at this task. Shaundar noticed the elf lord cast a quick, sideways glance at him out of the corner of an amethyst and citrine eye, which then widened slightly in surprise and returned quickly to the other students.

Yathar was beginning to fidget in his chair. Narissa and Selena were not concentrating on the lesson anymore, but were watching Shaundar with wide, horrified eyes.

Several more minutes passed. The Professor stole a couple more glances in Shaundar's direction. Shaundar's arms began to tremble and sweat beaded on his brow.

Stubbornly he continued to stand as ordered. He locked his shoulders and elbows into place, even though by now all his muscles were screaming in agony. He was not going to allow the Professor to get the better of him! And he was not going to disappoint his father!

He dared to glance at the hourglass that Captain Durothil kept on his desk. More than half an hour had gone by! He had never heard of anyone being required to do this for so long.

The girls were beginning to look upset, and even Laeroth's self-satisfied expression had mutated into a scowl that might have been irritation or concern. Yathar, unable to contain himself anymore, was waving his hand to be heard.

"Yes, Yathar?" the Professor drawled.

"Sir," he began, "it's been thirty-four minutes . . ."

Yathar's father cut him off with a snarl. "You leave Sunfall's discipline to me, boy, and mind your own business!"

"But sir!" Yathar burst out, indignant and horrified.

The Professor slammed his book down on the edge of Yathar's desk, from which Yathar recoiled. "Protest any further, Durothil, and you will join him."

Yathar slumped back, defeated.

More time passed. Shaundar lost track of it at that point. He was dimly aware that at some time, Narissa excused herself to use the outhouse because she brushed past him, but mostly, the whole world had degenerated into white-hot pain. His vision was blurred by the tears of agony leaking from his eyes, his whole body trembled, and it felt like every part of him from the base of his skull to his waist were on fire.

The door of the schoolhouse opened and Narissa's father, Admiral Lord Alastrarra, walked into the schoolroom.

"Numilor," he began, addressing Lord Durothil, "might I have a word. . ." He trailed off as his eyes met Shaundar's, who radiated a plea of mercy at him with all his might.

"What did he do?" the Admiral asked.

Lord Durothil waved a dismissive hand in Shaundar's direction. "He struck another student with his haversack full of books."

Lord Alastrarra's eyes, sea-foam green like his daughter's, narrowed slightly. Shaundar felt his hopes disintegrate, and he just about burst into tears and surrendered, but then miraculously, Narissa's father demanded, "How long has he been like this?"

"A while, sir," responded the Professor with a wave of his hand, but Yathar spoke up immediately. "Almost an hour, sir." The reproach in his voice was unmistakable.

Lord Admiral Alastrarra pursed his lips. "Well then, I think that is probably sufficient, don't you? He's not in the Navy yet, after all."

Lord Durothil frowned but covered it quickly. "Must have lost track of time," he mumbled. "Sunfall, you may stand down."

He gasped with relief and lowered his arms. The books fell from his hands, which no longer had the strength to carry anything. They turned immediately from an unnatural white to a hideous purple as the blood rushed back into them. He bit back a cry as fiery nerve pain raced along the same path. His muscles spasmed out of control.

Shaundar slowly bent to pick up the textbooks, but he realized that Narissa had beaten him to it, and she was standing up and offering the books to the Professor. She said nothing. Her oceanic eyes were glistening.

He wondered if she had used the outhouse as an excuse to fetch her father, since their home was not far from here. If so, he was grateful beyond words.

He reached for his haversack instead, and found himself unable to close his fingers around it. They were numb. He tried a couple of times but simply could not force his hand to curl properly.

Lord Durothil took the textbooks from Narissa and observed Shaundar with detachment, making no move to assist.

After watching him make a few more attempts, the Professor's lip curled into a snarl, but before he could say anything, Lord Alastarra had the haversack in his hand. "Where's your seat, son?"

"Next to Yathar, sir," he answered, biting back his tears of gratitude.

The Admiral carried the book bag over to Shaundar's desk and inquired of the Professor, "What's the subject today?"

"The history of Evergleam, sir," Lord Durothil replied through gritted teeth.

Narissa's father took the history textbook out of Shaundar's bag and laid it on his deck. "I don't suppose you know what page they're on?"

"Page 42, sir," Yathar piped up.

Shaundar was amazed when Lord Admiral Alastrarra opened the textbook to the required page. "I imagine you'll have to get Yathar to help you turn the pages until the feeling comes back to your fingers," he told Shaundar in a deceptively mild tone. "If it hasn't fixed itself by the end of the day, I'm sure your mother's prayers will take care of it well enough."

Shaundar, who was still in enough pain to be struggling not to cry, thanked Narissa's father meekly.

"Now," said the Admiral, "if I might speak with you, Captain . . ."

"Av, quessir," replied Lord Durothil, and he followed Lord Alastrarra out.

"Thank you," Shaundar said in a thin voice to Narissa.

"I had to do something," she sniffled.

Laeroth and his friends said nothing, but their expressions were troubled. From that point on, though they might bully Shaundar if they caught him by himself in town or in the woods, they never did so again at school.