Sebastian quietly closed the hatch to the loft and joined Aslynn by the un-shuttered window. He could almost laugh at his foster mother’s ideas. He and Aslynn in love?
She was his best friend.
The rain falling outside the loft window made a continuous rattle on the tile rooftops, not the usual soothing charm of a fall storm. He could see his dog, Artemis, standing outside the kennel’s shelter, looking up at them in the window. He wished Mother Bette would let him bring the mastiff inside, if only during poor weather.
“It’s a good storm,” Aslynn said, turning to look at Sebastian. “What were they talking about?”
He shrugged. There was no reason not to tell her. “Mother wondered if you and I would fall in love, and Father told her it wouldn’t matter. We could never marry, because I’m nobody.”
She frowned at him; he suspected more for the last words he spoke than the first. “That really bothers you, doesn’t it? Not knowing where you’re from.”
Sebastian nodded morosely. “I always thought that someday someone would step up and say, ‘Hello, I’m your father’. And he would have some fantastic reason why I was on that slaver ship, like I was stolen by pirates, and it has taken all this while to track me down. But it’s been fifteen years. Even if my parents haven’t given up hope, I’m about to.”
“Oh, 'Bastian.” Aslynn opened her arms, and he scooted closer to accept her hug, resting his head against hers. “If it’s any help at all, I’ll make you a promise. You have been my best friend for as long as I can remember, and I will move heaven and earth to help you find your parents. I’ll think of some way to do it, if you promise to never leave me alone here, with my awful stepmother and her awful, awful son.”
“I promise,” Sebastian whispered into her ear.
“As for falling in love with you...well, that would be like...,” she fumbled, at a loss for words. Sebastian released her and smiled down at her.
“Like falling in love with your brother?”
“Exactly. I love you, 'Bastian, but I don’t think I could ever be in love with you, if you take my meaning. You’re too much of a good friend to ruin it by falling in love.”
“Amen,” he said, thinking he couldn’t have said it better himself.
She sighed and shifted so that she rested against him as they gazed out at the storm. “This is the place I love best to be,” she said candidly. “Away from the Great Hall and my stepmother. Away from Edward and Katrona. Away from people who expect me to be simple-minded and biddable. I love it here, sitting with you.”
Sebastian smiled to himself, gratified that she felt she could say anything to him. “I love having you here.”
Outside, the storm continued to rage.
“What’s this?” Adam said, popping his head over the sill of the window as he lifted the glass pane up and out of his way. “Getting cozy?”
Aslynn laughed as they scooted back to give him room to climb in. “Took you long enough, Adam.”
“Long enough to decide if I really wanted to go out in this rain,” Adam said, hauling himself into the room and shaking the rain out of his short, blond hair. “I really should have gone to bed. The course is going to be even more difficult after tonight’s storm.”
Sebastian knew what he meant. The equestrian training course Master Jabari had designed, with its swinging targets, varied jumps, and changing obstacles, was hard enough even in ideal conditions. But Adam had confessed to Sebastian that he found it very hard to resist even the slightest invitation Aslynn gave him, however lacking in etiquette the invitation might be.
“You’ll do fine,” Aslynn said. “Master Jabari would call it 'reality training'. In battle, you won’t always have a good night’s sleep and dry ground under you.”
Adam laughed, and bowed to her before sitting down to lean against the window frame. “How can I fail to be motivated by your inspiring words, Princess? You could send me into battle any time.”
“Oh, please,” she said, reaching out to tweak his booted foot. Then she shifted position so her head lay cushioned by Sebastian’s shoulder and her legs draped across Adam’s legs. “I like this,” she declared, “being with my friends, breaking the rules. What a scandal it would be if word got out that Princess Aslynn was sleeping in Master Jabari’s loft with a common stable boy and Duke Wingfield’s son.”
“Common, am I?” Sebastian asked, turning to tickle her. She howled and tried to kick at him. “Don’t just sit there, Adam, grab her feet!”
Through the floor, they could hear Mother Bette shouting at them to settle down, and Sebastian shook a finger at Aslynn to let her know she was getting off easy.
“I’d better go,” Adam said, scooting for the window. “It really would be a scandal if I’m caught here.”
“But you just got here,” Aslynn said, reaching out to touch his arm. Sebastian saw him hesitate, on the verge of staying even though his common sense told him he needed a good night’s rest.
“Goodnight,” Sebastian said, giving his friend an out, then he laughed. “Coward.”
“I lack your bravery, stable boy,” Adam said in his courtliest manner. “I dare not take on the princess twice in one night.”
They all laughed, but before he could slip out the window and onto the pantry roof, Aslynn leaned over and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
“What was that for?” he asked, surprise coloring his tone.
She giggled. “For a friend. Goodnight, Adam.”
The smile Sebastian saw on Adam’s face looked practically giddy before he ducked his head and disappeared into the rainy night, leaving the two of them alone.
“In the morning,” Sebastian said thoughtfully, “let’s go look for a gift from the sea.”
“Sounds splendid,” Aslynn replied.
“Where is she?”
The shrill voice, followed by a door slamming, made every servant in the room flinch. No one needed to ask to whom Queen Tawnia referred. Princess Aslynn had gone willful missing—again. No one knew where to, this time.
“Drat the child! She knew I needed her today.” Tawnia had planned a society luncheon, one the princess had been told she was expected to attend, dressed and behaved like a princess. Rumors flying about court suggested the queen could not control the king’s firstborn; she had expected to quell those rumors today. “First the cursed weather, and now this!”
The queen stormed back out of the room, heading for the king’s private chambers.
“I’ll make a lady out of that little brat if it kills her,” she muttered to herself as she picked up multiple layers of her skirts to walk faster.
“Her Majesty, the Queen.” At the door of the king’s office, she paused only long enough to be announced, then she pushed past the herald and stopped, almost breathless, in front of the giant oak desk where King Isaiah sat, parchments spread before him.
Belatedly, she realized how unladylike her behavior was, and how she must appear to her husband.
“Yes, my dear?” the king said. She took a moment to collect herself. His kind brown eyes gazed out at her from under black hair peppered with gray, his chiseled features composed and patient. Though two years her junior, Isaiah both looked and acted far older than his thirty-eight years.
“It’s Aslynn, of course,” Tawnia said primly. “The child is missing, and she knew—she knew I was expecting her to attend today’s luncheon.”
“She’s hardly missing, my dear. She left at daybreak with Sebastian.”
“And you let her?”
“She’s safe with Sebastian.” Unperturbed, Isaiah moved one sheet of paper from in front of him to a stack on the left side of the desk before turning his full attention to her.
“But my luncheon—”
“Will come off perfectly well without her.” Isaiah rose and rounded the desk to put his hands on Tawnia’s shoulders. She resisted the urge to tiptoe in order to appear closer to his height. “She said it was important.”
“More important than her reputation?” Tawnia narrowed her eyes at him. “How long do you intend to allow her irresponsible behavior to go on? She’s nearly sixteen, too old to be gallivanting across the countryside with a young man alone. People will talk.”
“People always talk, Tawnia. She’s just fifteen, and she’s happy when she’s with Sebastian. I can’t take that away from her.”
Queen Tawnia pouted, though inside she wanted to curse. The only time Isaiah denied her was where his firstborn daughter was concerned. It didn’t matter how often she renewed the spell, he had never bent to her will when it came to Aslynn.
“Well, when her heart gets broken over this silly boy, don’t say I didn’t warn you. You realize they can never marry.”
Isaiah actually chuckled at her. “Those two share the love of siblings. I don’t expect that will change any time soon.”
“Siblings?” Tawnia repeated, struck by a horrifying thought.
“Yes. If you saw them together, you would see what I mean. Those two could not be closer if they shared the same blood.”
“Oh,” was all Tawnia could say, her mind racing to review everything she knew about Sebastian. “Oh!” Why had she never considered it before? It was by no means certain, but if it were true.... She had to find out. “If you want to let her ruin my luncheon, very well. But mark my words, no good will come of letting her ruin her reputation.”
“My dear, neither will be ruined, I assure you.”
“Mark me well,” she repeated before turning to leave the room, head high. Once she was out the door and around the corner, however, she picked up her skirts and hurried to the children’s suite in the family wing.
She remembered the day Isaiah brought Sebastian home from the sea. She had been distracted, channeling most of her energy to the business of crafting her spell on the king, and hadn’t paid much attention to the brat squalling in the swordmaster’s arms.
She had been frustrated; it had been five months and she still had very little results from her efforts. The king had proven to have a very strong will, which would have been fine for a woman who didn’t mind years of waiting for him to stop grieving and choose her for a wife. Tawnia, however, was not a patient woman. Tapping the Ley line alone had been insufficient. Tawnia had to resort to building a collection of personal items to focus the energy more closely to her will.
She had taken very little interest in the child. He was a big, strapping boy looking at least nine months old, and the princess was very petite, only a little over five months. The sea brat had blue eyes, light brown hair, and a pale complexion, unlike the princess, or the king—or even the dead queen, for that matter. It hadn’t seemed likely at the time. But was it magic?
“Edward!” she called as she entered the suite. “Katrona!”
Her children came running. The boy, just thirteen, was stout and healthy, with golden hair and skin like his mother, filled with confidence borne of getting his own way. The girl, only ten, was quiet and serious enough to give even her mother the quivers. Her black-haired, pale daughter possessed a much stronger sensitivity to Ley energy, and Tawnia was already grooming her to take advantage of it.
“My darlings!” she said, bending to plant a firm kiss on each waiting forehead.
“Mother! Miss Claire said you weren’t coming today.” Edward glanced over at the portly governess, as though accusing her of lying to him.
“I hadn’t planned on it, son, but now I have an important question to ask you. Just how much time does your sister spend with Sebastian?”
“Half-sister, Mother. You said to always remember that. Can’t we talk about something else? I—”
“Edward,” Tawnia said sternly. “How much time?”
The boy pouted, but answered obediently. “All the time. She says no one cares what she does because she’s not to inherit. I am. And every minute she can she’s down at the stables or riding with him. She even spends the night there, sometimes.”
Tawnia frowned. She’d had no idea her stepdaughter had run so wild. No wonder there were rumors. The girl was behaving like an absolute hussy.
“Katrona, when you look at Sebastian in Truth, what do you see?” Her daughter was much better at Truth-seeking than she. The gift of accurately discerning the greater Truth versus personal beliefs—personal truth—was a vital skill Tawnia sadly lacked.
Princess Katrona was silent for a long time, seeming to search her memories. Finally, she spoke, her voice eerily adult. “A mystery, Mother. A child of the sea.”
“That’s all?” Tawnia said, her tone conveying her doubt.
Katrona didn’t answer, and the Queen studied her a moment longer. Could her daughter be withholding information? The idea died before it was ever truly a thought. It was impossible.
“Thank you, my darlings. Run and play.” Her children had given her something to think about, but she would have to see the princess and the sea brat together to be sure.
"Do you see anything?” Aslynn asked, standing up in the stirrups to see better over waves still cresting at storm heights.
She and Sebastian had been riding since dawn, but by midday they had only found normal sea wrack amid the rocks of the strand. Now they were nearing the rocky headland where the Devil’s Jaw sat submerged in dangerously shallow water, waiting to snap up any ships that sailed too close.
Soon, they would have to either turn back or dismount and continue on foot around the headland. Both had worn sturdy boots in case they ventured onto the rocks. Artemis ranged far and wide across the strand, checking in now and again before racing off to investigate some new scent.
“There!” Sebastian called over the crashing surf.
“On the Jaw? I don’t see it.”
“No, closer in. A small boat—a sloop. Must have had an awful ride in that.”
“I see it. Who would be fool enough to have a boat that size out in a storm? Can we get to it?”
“She’s adrift.” Sebastian checked for familiar landmarks at the tidemark. “Tide’s still coming in, I’d say, but it’ll turn soon. We’ll have to hurry. She may have come over the Jaw safely, but she’ll not go back out the same way.”
“Do you think there are any survivors?”
“Well, Princess, you’ll have to wait until I get back to know.”
“No buts, Aslynn. The king would have my head if I let you go out there.”
“It’s not fair!”
“I know it. But it’s also not safe.”
Aslynn sighed. He hoped she would see reason. “Besides,” he said, after a moment, “someone needs to stay with the horses.”
“Very well, but if you have trouble, I’m coming after you.”
“Then I shall endeavor not to have trouble,” he said, and bowed to her.
“Go, 'Bastian,” Aslynn said imperiously. “Before I decide you go too slow.”
“Bossy brat,” Sebastian muttered as he dismounted.
“What did you say?” she demanded.
He smiled at her over the back of his horse. “I said you’re a bossy brat!” Then he added, breaking into a full, jaunty grin. “Aslynn!”
She laughed with him while he quickly stripped off his boots, coat, and shirt. He’d worn short breeches on the off chance he’d need to wade into the surf for a prize.
“Right,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows at her. “Here I go.”
“Luck!” she called to him as he entered the surf. Then, softer, “Be careful, and come back to me.”
Sebastian was a strong swimmer—a skill acquired through long hours spent swimming in the sea and a lack of fear. Not to say he didn’t respect the sea, but he always figured if the sea had wanted him, he would have drowned fifteen years ago.
He swam in the cold water with confidence now, checking his position against the sloop at every cresting wave. There was no doubt in his mind that this boat—or something on it—was important to him. It was too much of a coincidence that it should blow in on the anniversary of the very same night as the shipwreck that had cast him ashore.