Chapter One - Year of Our Lord 1628
Out at sea, a storm gathered. Clouds darkened and grew in number, towering high against the blue sky that still held above Lookout Cliffs.
Two young riders sat atop the seaside cliffs, watching the weather build. A large brindled mastiff ranged the cliff’s edge near them.
“The storm is coming this way,” the boy said, shifting his athletic frame in the saddle to turn to his companion. “Looks like a wild one. If we hurry, we can make it back before it hits, Your Highness.”
The young girl, a raven-haired beauty only half a year away from turning sixteen, sighed heavily, and did not look at the boy. “Sebastian, how many times must I tell you that you may call me Aslynn?”
“I know that I may, Aslynn,” the boy said, saying her name with all the sass he could muster. “But my backside is still sore from the last time I slipped and called you by your name in front of Master Jabari. Imagine if I should address you so in front of the queen?”
“You never see the queen. And besides, you forget I told Master Jabari it was all right for you to be familiar with me.”
“You miss my point, Princess. If I should slip at court—”
“It hardly matters to most, ’Bastian. They all look to Edward more than me. No one cares about the princess when there is a future king in my half-brother.”
“I care,” said Sebastian, with the air of making an obvious point in a case the two argued on a regular basis. “As does your father, and Master Jabari and Mother Bette.”
“I know.” Aslynn’s dark eyebrows drew together as she wrinkled her button nose. “But, I don’t care about being a princess, Sebastian. I want a friend who will call me Aslynn.”
“And tell you when you’re being a brat?” He turned in the saddle to whistle up the dog. “Artemis!”
“Aye, that too.”
“Well, brat. If we don’t go now, we’ll surely be soaked before we get back, and I’ll get hided for keeping you out.”
Aslynn’s sea green eyes twinkled with mischief. “Can’t have that. I wager I make it back before you, and dry to boot.”
“You’re on.” No sooner were the words out than both youths wheeled their horses back toward Castle Fair Haven, riding at breakneck speeds, leaving the mastiff to follow as fast as she could.
Jabari, the king’s Swordmaster, waited in the courtyard, hands on hips, as the two teens charged through the gate, narrowly avoiding collision with each other and the archway. Neither had given way.
“I won!” Aslynn cried, vaulting out of the saddle as a young boy ran out to take her horse’s reins. “You saw, Master Jabari!” Her tanned features were flushed with excitement and her long black hair, completely unpinned, streamed over her shoulders in wild disarray. She raked it away from her face in a fierce gesture of pride.
“I saw, all right. I saw the two of you racing like fools across broken ground, as likely to kill yourselves than not. Your Highness.”
Unfazed by Jabari’s grumpy greeting, she stretched up to give him a quick kiss on his whiskered ebony cheek. “But I won!”
“For certain, Princess. You had him by a nose hair, at least.” The old military man had a soft spot in his heart for the princess; he actually cracked a smile before schooling his features into a stern mask. “Sebastian, I’d have expected better of you than encouraging such a race.”
His foster son had to work to keep the smile off his face. “Was I supposed to let her win? She’d have me hided for sure.”
“He knows me so well.” Aslynn laughed, still exuberant from the ride and her win.
“I’m sure you deserve a beating for something or another, my boy.” Master Jabari reached out to ruffle the boy’s short, brown hair, confirming he was indeed teasing.
“Camden,” Aslynn called to the page holding her horse’s reins. “Run and tell the king I’m home, would you? And that I’m staying with Master Jabari.” She turned to Jabari as the first fat drops of rain began to fall in the courtyard. “That is, if he cares to shelter me from this storm.”
“As you wish, Princess.”
She gave him a dimpled smirk. “I wish,” she said sweetly, then turned back to the page. “Thank you, Camden.”
The boy bowed and gave the reins over to Sebastian.
“Well then, Princess,” said Jabari, again adopting a stern manner. “You know the rules of my house.”
“One must care for the horse before one rests,” the two youths chorused.
“Especially after a ride like that. A race very well run, by the way. Go now, before the poor beasts catch chill. Mother Bette will have supper waiting.”
A breeze picked up, driving the raindrops and scattering leaves and straw across the courtyard. Aslynn and Sebastian turned as one to take their horses into the stable.
“What did we wager, anyway?” Sebastian asked once he thought they were out of earshot.
Aslynn laughed merrily. “I’ll think of something.”
Jabari shook his head, smiling indulgently. There was no question in his mind who had initiated that race.
“That was a fine meal, Mother,” Sebastian said as he and Adam stood to gather the dishes. Adam, the eighteen-year-old, blond-haired, brown-eyed son of a neighboring lord and Master Jabari’s current student, had joined them for dinner.
The simple meal was taken in the Swordmaster’s homey quarters across the assembly yard from the royal stables.
Not to be outdone, Aslynn leapt to her feet to help. Here, inside these walls, though they may call her “Her Highness the Princess,” she was part of the family, and she helped with domestic chores.
“No, children, tonight I’ll do the cleaning up.”
“But, Aunt Bette,” Aslynn protested, “you know I always help.”
“Not tonight, my dear. Tonight is special.” Mother Bette took the stew pot from Aslynn.
“Special, how?” Aslynn asked, but Mother Bette just smiled.
Aslynn looked over at Sebastian, who shrugged. Adam carried the dishes he had collected to the stone sink, but did not go back for more.
Master Jabari moved to the fireplace, opening a wooden box to remove an ornate pipe, which he loaded with tobacco from a clay jar before lighting it with a taper from the fire. Smoke puffed from around the pipe stem as he settled down in his chair by the fire.
The trio exchanged glances and smiles. A pipe always meant a story. They settled onto the rug in front of the blaze, ready to listen.
For a moment, all they heard was the storm raging outside, and Aslynn watched the flames jump in the fitful breeze blowing down the chimney. She was glad to be here in such company, warm and comfortable, rather than shivering in her bedchamber, alone and bored.
“It’s fitting that a storm should blow tonight,” Master Jabari said, and Aslynn turned to see him staring thoughtfully over the top of his pipe.
She and her friends waited, knowing it would do no good to try to rush things. The old military man had a hundred stories to tell from his years in service to King Isaiah. There was the romance of falling in love with Princess Bette, who gave up any claim she might have to the crown out of the knowledge that the kingdom was not ready to have such an obvious outlander anywhere near the throne. Then there were the stories of his youth on the far off shores of Egypt, his native land, not to mention the roundabout journey to the Bonnie Isles as a captive on his way to a life of slavery.
Master Jabari had explained more than once that in the tradition of his people, he told the stories to the children as a matter of oral history, so that they might pass them down to their children. Aslynn didn’t think so seriously about the future, but found them a good night’s entertainment.
“Fifteen years ago, there was a storm such as this, on this very night. The wind raged all night and the rain fell so hard it beat trees to the ground. Every roof in the castle sprang a leak.
“The next morning, King Isaiah and I went riding on the beach with the salvage crews, to see what the sea had given us. You see, the sea may give us our harsh weather, but she always leaves us her bounty when the wind and waves calm.”
“Tonight was the night...?” Aslynn began, and Sebastian hushed her.
“Tell us the story, Master Jabari?” Adam asked respectfully. Aslynn knew he hadn’t heard this story yet, but she and Sebastian could hear it a hundred times more and never tire of it.
Jabari stroked the whiskers on his narrow chin. “King Isaiah and I rode the beaches, and it wasn’t long before we saw the frigate, her back broken on the reef they call the Devil’s Jaw.” He took a moment to puff on his pipe, and Aslynn imagined his absent gaze reflecting his memories of the sight.
“The reef had called another ship to the bottom of the sea. There were bodies in the surf, and they told a story that would never have come from lips still breathing life. Bodies still chained to pieces of the ship, as well as a drowned man known to be a slaver—the first mate of a ship known as the Swing Trader. The frigate’s captain had tried to leave their secret port under cover of the storm, knowing if they were caught on the Bonnie Isles, they would be tried as the criminals they were.
“Well, the sea delivered her own justice, taking all the poor souls who had been slaves home to her as well. All save one.”
Aslynn clapped her hands in delight, knowing who that one soul had been.
Master Jabari smiled and continued. “Amid all the wreckage, the king found a sea chest. An airtight wooden box made to float, such as those used by sea captains to hold their ships logs or special belongings. Well, there was certainly something special in this one.”
“Sebastian!” Aslynn laughed, and the boy in question gave her a playful punch on the arm.
“It was the oddest thing,” Jabari continued, looking thoughtful. “King Isaiah saw the chest floating in surf still rough from the storm, and instead of asking me or one of the other searchers to fetch it, he went after it himself.”
“Do you think he heard 'Bastian crying?” Aslynn asked—as she always asked.
“I could hardly hear myself talk over the roar of waves and the cries of the gulls scavenging the corpses. But the king, he must have heard something. He came back to shore dripping wet, with the chest in his arms. He set it down so gently in the sand...” Master Jabari pantomimed the gesture, and even now, wonder lit his weathered ebony features, “and pried open the latches.
“I was nearby when he did it, and though I don’t claim to be a mystic, I know magic when I smell it. There was a spell on that chest, to keep its contents safe.
“Inside, nestled in blankets and snug as you three are tonight, was a baby boy, with eyes the color of the sea.”
Aslynn knew those eyes better than her own—the green of sunlight shining in the surf, or the froth of the waves after a storm. She always thought it was funny others called them blue.
“The king and I brought him home to Castle Fair Haven, and though we inquired, no one reported losing a baby. King Isaiah entrusted the care of the babe to Mother and myself, and gave him the name Sebastian, boy of the sea.”
“But where could I have come from?” Sebastian asked, sounding upset by the story this time. “Don’t I look like anybody? I was more than ten months old, surely someone had seen me before the slavers took me....”
Jabari shook his head, exchanging a look with Bette, who had paused in her dishwashing. Maybe it was time to stop telling the tale. “Whoever they may have been, they’re either dead or not talking.”
Aslynn, never one to stay serious for long, giggled. “Slavers had nothing to do with it. You weren’t born, you were spat out of the sea, just as you are. A brat!” The last word turned into a shriek as Sebastian tackled her, Adam hurrying out of the way. She rolled with him, staying atop briefly, before giving way to his superior strength and size to be pinned under him.
“Who’s the brat?” he growled.
Jabari only watched. He’d trained both of them in wrestling, sword fighting, and in Aslynn’s case, self-defense. He wanted to see what she would do now.
“'Bastian,” she said, lower lip trembling. “You’re hurting me.”
Horrified, Sebastian loosened his grip, “I’m sorry....”
Before he could finish his apology, Aslynn wiggled out of his grasp and used newly gained leverage to flip her opponent onto his back, pinning him with all her weight.
“Well done, Princess,” Jabari said, clapping to express his pride. “You should see your face, my boy.”
“You mean you taught her that? It’s not fair.” Sebastian scrambled out from beneath her.
“Oh, come. She has to have something to make up for sheer brute strength. And who could resist that face?”
“Well, I will, next time.”
“If you were truly my enemy, there would not be a next time.” Aslynn flipped up a glittering knife, drawn from some secret place so skillfully, even Jabari didn’t see her do it.
Sebastian did the only thing he could do. He bowed deeply and grandly, as though standing before the king himself, and said, “I yield me, Your Highness. My life is in your hands.”
“And I give it back to you, freely,” she said with as much solemnity before cracking a grin. “What on earth would I want with your life?” She flopped gracelessly back down onto the rug. “I think it’s a grand mystery to be born of the sea. Perhaps you’re the Sea King’s son, and you’ll be fetched back in a grand storm to become king yourself.”
Sebastian snorted. “That’s some imagination, Princess.”
“I’ve a fine imagination!” she declared. “Where are you going?” she asked, catching Adam moving for the door.
“I’ve an early day tomorrow,” the young lord said, nodding at Jabari.
“Yes, he’s riding the course tomorrow.” Jabari was pleased to see his student choose to be responsible enough to turn in early the night before a big challenge.
“Oh, well, rest up,” Aslynn said, rolling her eyes at him. Then she laughed. “Goodnight, Adam.”
“Goodnight, Princess. Goodnight, all.”
The others wished him well, and he made his way out to the student’s barracks behind the stables.
“Come on,” Aslynn said abruptly. “Let’s go up to the loft to watch the storm!”
From her place at the sink, Bette shook her head and laughed. Jabari chuckled, too. Most young girls Aslynn’s age were terrified of storms, but the princess only wanted to be closer to it. Then again, the princess was certainly not most girls.
The two children left the room by the ladder to the loft, and Bette sighed. “They make a good match. Do you think they’ll ever be in love?”
“Love matters not, Bette. The boy has no name, no true family. By tradition, he’s not fit for a princess.” Jabari held up a hand to forestall Bette’s protest. “I know as well as you that he’s noble enough, and strong, and wise beyond his years. And in better times, his parentage might not have mattered. But it will never happen so long as Queen Tawnia still breathes,” he said. “She’ll not stand for anything that could remotely come between her son and his crown.”
“Aslynn might do as I did, and give it all up for him.”
“My love, we at least had the support of the king and his heir. That woman would see to it Aslynn was cast out into the cold without a second thought, and then where would she be?”
“Humph,” was all Bette said in reply.