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by Pat McDermott

Ireland's Princess Talty and her cousin Neil train together to become Fian warriors.

* * * * *

The village of Howth sits at the northern cusp of the crescent that forms Dublin Bay. Upscale shops and restaurants line the main street. Fishing trawlers bob in the water beside a private yacht club. Splendid homes adorn the small peninsula, from the waterfront to the top of Howth Head, a lofty bluff that overlooks the Irish Sea. Foremost among these grand abodes is Garrymuir, a majestic estate that had been in the Boru family for generations. Prince Peadar, King Brian's only sibling, lived there now with his wife and two sons.

A special wing of Garrymuir housed an airy gymnasium dedicated to training Ireland's next generation of Fianna. Neil Boru, Peadar's elder son, expected to join their elite ranks soon. While he waited for Talty to change, Neil stood beneath the skylights twirling his bata in practiced circles, swinging the lethal hardwood staff at imaginary enemies.

For years he and Talty had trained to become Fian warriors. Neil's father had paired the cousins as partners years before, after Neil had emerged as the only boy in the training class unafraid to trounce Talty.

Talty's midweek call had surprised him. Since her assignment to the Alastrina, Neil had only seen her on his weekend leaves from the Air Corps. Still, he'd had no trouble obtaining permission from his commanding officer to rearrange his flight-training schedule so he could take her to Garrymuir. Being the king's nephew had its privileges.

"Ready, Neil?" Talty marched in from the lockers dressed in padded workout clothes, as he was. She hefted a six-foot bata from a rack on the wall.

A pretty enough girl, he thought, though thin to the point of being wiry. Her ivory skin and auburn hair proclaimed her Boru heritage. Neil's own blue-black hair and azure eyes were constant reminders, at least to him, that he only bore his royal surname through the kindness of the man who'd married his mother shortly before Neil's birth.

He stepped toward Talty. "I'm ready. You're not."

"What do you mean?"

Neil loved her tiny pout, the last vestige of the little girl who'd grown up with him and become one of his closest friends. "I mean this." He tugged her hair, a ritual he'd performed since their first training class, after a fellow Fian student had tried to defend himself against Talty by grabbing her chestnut locks and yanking too hard.

Pulling something from her pocket, she shook her head and ensnared her dark red tresses in a ponytail. "All right. Let's go."

She banged her bata three times on the floor, the signal to start. Neil approached her as he always did: with caution. His father's voice whispered in his ear: A pretty little girl can kill you just as dead as a big, ugly man.

Talty never began a training bout the same way twice. Today she started pacing. Neil concentrated, tried to sense her battle spirit—and just managed to parry a lightning-fast shot to his chest. She jabbed her bata at his head. He had a split second to decide whether to ward off a strike that might be a feint, or wait and parry the real attack.

Thwack! The blow might have broken his thigh if he hadn't deflected it. He darted behind her. She whirled to protect her back.

Sudden fury blazed in her chestnut eyes. Neil decided he'd better find out what was going on before he got hurt. "What's up, Tal? Uncle Brian got you flustered again? Taking it out on me again?"

"Nothing's up!" With a furious swing, she cracked her bata against his.

He barely countered the assault. Talty would be a fine addition to the Banfianna, as the female Fianna were called. She might be lagging behind Neil—her royal duties had cut into her training time—but she knew her moves and possessed a strength that belied her slender form.

Thwack! Thwack!

Neil danced back, his bata raised before him in defense. "All right, Tal, what's wrong? Tell me before you kill me so I can die happy."

Thwack! "Nothing's wrong."

Her glistening eyes said otherwise. Neil flung his bata down, twisted hers from her hands, and slammed his thigh behind her knees.

She crumpled in outrage to the shock-absorbent floor. "You big dope!"

Turning so she wouldn't see him grin, he sauntered to a nearby alcove and drew two bottles of mineral water from the mini-fridge. "You should learn the Fian motto, Tal."

"I know it as well as anyone!" She rolled to her feet and stomped after him. "'Truth in our Hearts, Strength in our Arms, Dedication to our Promise!'"

He plunked himself down on the bench against the wall. "All right. Let's start with truth in your heart." With two quick twists, he removed the bottle caps and pitched them into a nearby wastebasket. He raised one bottle in a gesture of truce.

She accepted it and sat beside him. A swig of water seemed to calm her down. "Thanks, Neily. You're always looking after me."

"It's my duty to look after you. I'm your Shivail."

"An honorary title you take far too seriously. I can look after myself."

"My father's always taught me to protect you. 'As long as you live, neither for gold nor for any other reward in the world abandon one you are pledged to protect.'"

"You're full of Fian mottoes today. How about this? 'A pig's arse, and that's pork.'"

He pretended to be shocked. "That's not a Fian motto."

She drew the bottle to her smiling lips and chugged. "Get a life, Neil. You have more to do than baby-sit me. You're going to be the best pilot the Air Corps ever had." The pride in her voice pleased him. "And then there's the girls."

"What girls?" He tried but failed to keep from grinning.

"Truth in our hearts, Neily. I've heard how you and our rascally cousin Aidan have the girls swooning all over Ireland." She poked his shoulder. "Strength in our arms."

"How about you, Lady Princess, off on a ship full of randy sailors?"

Her cheeks blazed. That such a strong young woman could blush so easily had always amused Neil. "I'm not interested in such things, Neil Boru. Anyway, it wouldn't matter if I had tons of lovers. I'm to marry Thomas Wessex."

Neil froze, unsure that he'd heard correctly. "Thomas Wessex? He's the King of England."

"Aren't you a feckin' genius." She drank until her bottle was empty.

"I don't believe it. You can't marry Thomas Wessex. He's . . . he's not well."

Her eyes glistened. She swatted at the threatening tears. "That means nothing in the grand scheme of world politics."

Unsure what to do, he leaned toward her. "Don't cry, Tal."

"I am not crying!"

"No." A gulp of water hid another smile. "That would be ridiculous. Can't you refuse?"

Breathing deeply, she quickly regained her composure. "I could have, but I didn't. I wanted to do it. If I marry Thomas, I won't be Crown Princess anymore."

"What? How can you not be Crown Princess anymore?"

Talty explained the treaties, and how Geoffrey Wessex had insisted she relinquish her title to her brother Liam. Her declaration that she hated her "king lessons" and despised sitting about like a delicate doll while everyone else had all the fun astonished him.

"So I agreed," she said. "But as I thought about it, I felt like a cow being sold at the fair. I love my father, but sometimes I wish I were someone else's daughter."

She was afraid, though she'd never admit it. Neil set his water down and squeezed her hands. "Your father would never hurt you, and no one's going to harm you while I'm around."

With a sigh, she slipped her hands from his. "This politics stuff is all codology."

"Arranged marriages between England and Ireland are nothing new. My father was supposed to marry Claudia Wessex, remember?"

Talty's quicksilver temperament cast its spell. Like sunshine bursting from behind a dark cloud, a smile lit her face - and Neil's heart.

"But he didn't." She pecked his cheek. "The smartest thing your father ever did was marry your mother and adopt you the day you were born."

Her unwitting reminder that he wasn't a born Boru overshadowed the compliment. He tugged a wayward wisp of her hair. "Come on, Tal. Let's get changed for dinner."



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