Berengar, the bigger princeling, smiled a strange, dry smile.
"Irreplaceable? Kind of you to call me such, Dono."
He snapped his fingers at one of his scarlet-caped soldiers, who jerked instantly to attention and saluted.
"Find the falcon and make sure it is dead. I'm sure I don't know why it was attacking my friend here, but I'm sure we wouldn't want it to do it again..."
Dono picked over feathers that were already neat, fluffing his wings, just a little awkward.
"It was Nyssa da Silva," he said, flicking his huge orange eyes up to meet Berengar's deep, dark brown ones. The prince raised one eyebrow.
"The Vagari witch-woman my father loved so very much?"
Undertones trickled through the words, and the owl dipped his beak as he realised Berengar knew exactly the secret of his brother's parentage.
"Yes," he said, preening at his chest-feathers. This form was not ideal for talks like this. He stretched his wings above his head, and for a moment his form was blurred; and then the slim silver-haired young man with the almond-shaped amber eyes was there. A brief smile flickered across Berengar's face once again.
"Nice to see you human," he observed. "Where is your sister?"
Donovan twisted his mouth in what was almost a scowl.
"Khoreia is playing soldiers," he said. "Searching for da Silva and for Drakon and his tame ape."
"My my, my brother is running about in the woods hunted by soldiers? Soldiers led by your...unique...older sister. It is positively my duty to...rescue him. Do you know where he is?"
"I know where Borysko and your father are," Donovan said warily. "I was searching for Khoreia when I was...attacked."
"My father? I thought he was in residence in the Mage's School? I believe I gave...quite explicit commands that he be kept there..."
The Scarlet Guardsmen behind him assumed the kind of fixed expressions worn by those contemplating the fate of colleagues. They were not happy expressions. Donovan gave a small cough.
"He...escaped. He seems to be cleverer than we gave him credit for..."
"Cleverer than you gave him credit for, Dono," Berengar corrected. "I always knew he had to be more intelligent than he seemed. It would be almost impossible for it to be otherwise."
"...Yes, my prince," Donovan allowed, lowering his head a little. He neglected to mention that he had told the prince to be more wary of his father, and had been ignored. It would not do him any favours.
The Guardsman who had been sent to look for the falcon came jogging back at that moment, wet to the hips. He saluted with the sharp crispness of someone who had bad news and hoped that a show of smartness would lessen the punishment he knew was coming.
"I couldn't find it, sire," he said, keeping his eyes fixed on the middle distance. "I searched everywhere, sire, and it was nowhere to be found. Must have been washed downstream, sire."
Berengar's eyes flickered to the man's soaking legs. "You searched everywhere?"
The Guardsman swallowed. "Everywhere, your Majesty."
"And you saw nothing?"
"There...there was blood on a rock, sire, but no trail, just a patch-"
Berengar had raised a finger. He pointed at the man and smiled a smile with absolutely no trace of humour.
"It is hard to believe you could not find one falcon. One badly injured falcon, which could not possibly...fly away. It could have been washed downstream, I grant you, but then why did you not go and look? It is quite a shallow river, Corporal, with many still pools and really not that much of a current."
The corporal's face was a mask of utter terror. Berengar snapped his fingers, and despite himself he went rigid; his training ran deep.
"Corporal Mecho. You are a Scarlet Guard. You are supposed to be...the best of the best. And yet you could not find one little falcon...oh dear."
The prince nodded to another one of the Guards, who took a smart step forwards and saluted.
"Take this man away and kill him. Make it quick. Make sure he doesn't squeal or bleed too much, we don't want to attract attention..."
The hapless Corporal Mecho was dragged away, tears running down his face, prevented from calling out by a heavy hand clapped over his mouth. Berengar turned back to Donovan, his face expressionless. The young Vagari had been watching in a kind of admiration; he'd never seen the prince sentence someone to death so...casually before. Berengar was changing.
"Now. Dono. I believe it would be in our interest to find your sister and her soldiers post haste. Nyssa da Silva may not be dead. Do you know where they are?"
"I...I can find out, your majesty. But the soldiers I believe may be loyal to your father-"
He stopped. Berengar had come closer, so they were almost nose to nose. One hand touched Donovan's shoulder almost carressingly.
"I will make them loyal to me. Everyone will be loyal to me, soon enough. If my father has been reduced to running through the woods in the company of common bodyguards...he is not a proper king, is he? Hm? Let us see how long they stay loyal to a king like that."
Their gazes locked for a second, and then Donovan nodded stiffly. Berengar stepped back and smiled.
He snapped his fingers for the third time and the Scarlet Guards formed up around him protectively. The other soldiers fell in behind. Donovan, with a feeling of treacherous relief, shimmered and returned to the owl-shape and soared up above the treetops, looking for Khoreia.
But his thoughts were on Berengar. The prince was...dangerous now. The fate of corporal Mecho showed that, but the smile was the biggest clue. It was...a worrying smile.
What have we turned him in to?