Aslynn watched, holding her breath with her heart in her mouth, as Sebastian made his way to the boat. She fell to counting each time he bobbed atop the crest of a wave.
He was nearing the boat, but it would be a close call. Sebastian would need the incoming tide to get the boat—and himself—back to shore. From what she could see, the mast was broken, making sailing impossible, but at least it was small enough to row.
Her horse shifted beneath her, and she absently soothed him, stroking his neck and humming a little song her nursemaid had always used to comfort her.
She didn’t breathe properly again until she saw Sebastian haul himself aboard. Waving to show he was safe, he then turned around—no doubt looking for survivors or a way to bring the boat to shore.
It was bigger than it appeared, Aslynn decided. He was not going to be able to row it in against the tide.
Just then, something on the shore spooked the horses. At the same time Sebastian’s horse pulled loose from her grip on its reins and trotted a few lengths down the beach, her horse snorted and danced beneath her. His gelding was too well-trained to go any further, and hers responded to the pressure of her knees telling him to stay while she searched in surprise for the cause of their fright.
Artemis nosed around some rocks sitting right at the tidemark, and she frowned, wondering what the dog was after. Then, one of those "rocks" moved. Puzzled, Aslynn dismounted and went to have a closer look. When the "rock" groaned, she realized what it was.
Artemis had discovered a survivor of the storm, probably from the boat Sebastian just boarded.
As she drew closer, she could make out the shredded clothing, gray-white skin, and head, all covered in seaweed. That they had not noticed the body before was not surprising. It looked like something rooted in the sand, part of the beach.
Aslynn checked on Sebastian. He was still on the boat, trying to rig up a sail.
The man on the beach groaned again, and she moved quickly to his side. “Get back, Artemis.” She put out her hand, and the dog obediently backed off and sat down. Kneeling in the sand beside the stranger, she gently pulled seaweed away from his face.
“Hello,” she said. “It must be your lucky day.”
The man coughed up some seawater, and Aslynn helped him sit up. “Funny,” he rasped, “I don’t feel lucky.”
Aslynn pulled off some more seaweed, wondering where he was from. His accent was like none she had ever heard.
“My boat?” he asked, his voice sounding more like a croak.
“Sebastian is trying to bring it in. See?” She pointed out over the waves, and saw Sebastian was in trouble. The boat drifted further out to sea, the tide turning before he had a chance to bring it in. He was moving frantically about the boat, trying to paddle it toward shore. She stood abruptly. “Sebastian!”
Sebastian pulled hard on the makeshift paddle, but it had no effect against the out-flowing tide. He looked over his shoulder at the Devil’s Jaw and saw he was moving out fast, closing in on the water frothing over the jagged stones. He was going to have to swim for it.
Dropping the useless paddle, he made a quick search of the boat for anything unusual. There was nothing on deck—everything not tied down had washed overboard. Below, in the small berth and even smaller galley, personal effects lay scattered all about: clothing, dishes, chess pieces, a sea chest.
Sebastian tried to open the sea chest, but it was locked. The whole thing was too large to try to swim to shore with. He searched for something to break the lock.
The boat lurched wildly, sending Sebastian spinning. Picking himself up, he stumbled for the companionway and climbed back on deck. The Devil’s Jaw was just off the port bow. Prize or none, it was now or never to get off the boat.
The boat lurched again, fighting the current. Sebastian again surveyed the Jaw. He was moving away from it, back toward shore. Turning , he saw Aslynn had dismounted and appeared to be shouting at him. He waved at her, unsure what was happening. Was it a rogue tide of some kind?
The boat moved swiftly for the strand, and he leapt to the tiller to steer around the rocks. Whatever was carrying the boat, it was in a great hurry. In no time at all, the boat had grounded. Sebastian jumped off and pulled it as high as he could above the tidemark. Then he turned and ran to where Aslynn stood on the beach.
“What happened?” they asked each other at the same moment, and laughed.
Aslynn turned and gestured to the sand at her feet and for the first time, Sebastian noticed a man lying there.
“Who is he?” Sebastian asked.
“I don’t know. That’s his boat, though. He woke up long enough to ask about it, then when I saw the tide had turned and you were almost on the Jaw, he...I don’t know. Next thing I knew, you were coming in, and he was out cold.”
“Well, let’s get him to the boat. We can get him dried off and see how badly he’s hurt. Come on, Princess, give me a hand.”
Queen Tawnia swept into the king’s study and propped her hands on her hips. “Well?”
King Isaiah lifted his gaze from the parchment he was studying, his brow wrinkling in puzzlement. “My dear?”
“Your daughter.” The queen tried her best to be patient with the man, but he was obviously distracted by whatever trash he was reading.
“Is she all right?”
“She and that stable brat aren’t back yet.”
The king looked out the window at the afternoon light. “It’s not dark yet, and she’s with Sebastian.”
“You’re not worried?”
“Some,” the king admitted.
Isaiah sat back in his great chair, a frown creasing his brow—a brow still bearing the lines of old grief, no matter how hard Tawnia tried to ease them. “I don’t mean to question your motives, my dear, but since when do you concern yourself with where Aslynn goes and when she comes back?”
“Since I decided it is high time she started acting like a lady.” Tawnia stalked up to the desk and glared down at Isaiah. “She’s nearly sixteen. Even if she's not to inherit, she should still behave like she's royalty.”
“She is royalty, Tawnia. Nothing can change that.”
Tawnia sighed in disgust. “She runs around all day with a commoner, just after an awful storm, misses an important luncheon, embarrasses me, and fails to return, yet you just sit here, reading a...a...,” she glanced at the paper on his desk, “a pig list.”
“The fall butchering is important.” Isaiah sighed. “I worry, my dear, but not enough yet to send out a search party. And I trust Sebastian.”
Tawnia tried another tactic. She leaned over the desk and reached out to run a finger under the lapel of his housecoat. “Aslynn’s reputation is important, too, my love. What will she have to fall back on when you and I are gone? Would you have her rely upon Edward’s good will, knowing how poorly they get along? If she doesn’t know how to be a lady, where can she go? Who will care for a woman who cannot act like a woman, like a lady?” Tawnia ran her hand down Isaiah’s chest. “I can teach her, take her under my wing, be sure she has what she needs to be well cared for.”
“But…,” Isaiah faltered, and Tawnia knew she was making headway at last, “but she is happy now.”
“She will be happy as a lady, too. Have faith in me.”
The king sighed, running a hand through black hair flecked with gray. “Very well. I will tell her tonight, when she returns.”
The queen kissed the king firmly on the mouth, then straightened with a smile. “You won’t regret this, and one day, neither will Aslynn.”
“I think he’s coming around.” Aslynn quickly poured some drinking water into one of the cups from the galley and held it to the man’s lips. “Drink, sir. You need the water.”
The man took a sip of water, coughed, and drank a little more. “I...thank you.” The man gazed around, eyes focusing slowly. “Where am I?”
“On your boat.”
“My Remini? You saved her?”
Sebastian chuckled. “Near as we can figure, you did, sir. I was just a passenger while the boat came ashore herself. Aslynn was with you when you asked after your boat, and then you passed out.”
“Sebastian thinks it was magic.” Her tone spoke volumes of what Aslynn thought of that notion.
“Help me sit,” the man said. Aslynn moved a pillow behind his back as Sebastian supported his move. “It was magic, my friends, but not mine. My Remini has a mind of her own sometimes. She got me past the reef, but she could not keep a poor sailor such as myself on board. She certainly would not have wanted to wreck on the reef once she knew I lived.”
“The boat sailed herself over the Devil’s Jaw?” Aslynn said in disbelief. “I cannot credit that.”
“But you saw her come in with your own eyes,” Sebastian protested. He was always amazed at how easily Aslynn could dismiss magic with so much evidence of its existence in life—especially his life.
“I saw something, but—”
The stranger’s coughing fit halted their argument.
“Oh, sir, more water?” Aslynn asked, offering the cup.
“Thank you, missy. You’re a kind lass.”
Sebastian bristled at the stranger’s breezy familiarity. “She’s not a lass, she’s—”
“Aslynn,” she cut him off quickly. “My name is Aslynn. And this is my best friend, Sebastian.” She shook her head. “We need not trouble him with who we are,” she said earnestly, and Sebastian got her point. No need to advertise she was the king’s daughter. Not while they knew nothing about this man.
“My name is Meedo,” the stranger said. “I owe you my life, lass. And, my boy, I owe you for sparing my Remini.”
“What were you doing out in that storm?” Aslynn asked.
“As poor a sailor as I am, I also have a poor weather eye. It took me by surprise.”
“But you said the boat was magic.”
“Remini can’t tell me when a storm approaches, only try her best to bring me safely to port.” Meedo studied his surroundings for the first time. “Ah, the place is a mess. My sea chest?”
“Here,” said Sebastian, thumping it with the flat of his hand. “Still locked.”
“Good lad. We’re not at sea?” he asked, seeming to note for the first time the boat was not rocking on the waves.
“No. Your Remini ran herself aground. I think we’ll be able to re-float her on the next tide, but you’ll need to put in at port to fix the keel and mast.”
Outside the boat, Artemis began barking—not at danger, more like a warning.
“The horses,” Sebastian sighed. “I’ll be right back.” He clattered up the companionway and they listened to him cross the deck and leap to the sand, whistling for the horses.
“He’s a brave lad, your Sebastian, to go after the boat like he did. Brave, but foolish.”
“Not so foolish. 'Bastian is at home at sea as much as he is on land. I think he truly is a child of the sea.”
“Why would you say that, missy?” Meedo asked.
“Fifteen years ago today, he washed up on this very beach in a sea chest not unlike yours, Meedo. No one knows where he came from.”
“A mystery?” the stranger said thoughtfully.
“It bothers him, not knowing who his family is. Sometimes I think knowing I love him, that his foster parents love him, is not enough.”
“Family has a very strong pull, Aslynn. For a young man his age, it would be a powerful pull, indeed. He is just coming into his sense of self, becoming a man. Knowing one’s roots helps one feel anchored, centered, more in control.”
Aslynn sighed. “I wish I could help him. I told him I’d move the earth if I thought it would help, but—”
Meedo chuckled. “You won’t have to move the earth, but I believe you could, Princess.”
“How did you know...?”
“Some things I know. One is the name of King Isaiah’s daughter. Other things I can find out, like your Sebastian’s mystery. That is what I do. Perhaps solving his mystery will discharge my debt to the pair of you. Open my sea chest.”
“But it’s locked.”
Meedo smiled. “Try it.”
Aslynn put her finger under the latch and it sprang open. Surprised, she regarded the stranger a moment before lifting the lid.
“The velvet sack. Give it to me, please.”
Aslynn shifted a few items around until she found a scrap of black velvet. Digging her fingers around it, she found a drawstring top, and pulled. The sack was heavy with whatever was inside—something round. She handed it to Meedo.
“Aslynn!” Sebastian shouted from outside. “You’d better come out here.”
“I’m sorry,” she said to Meedo, scrambling to her feet. Something in Sebastian’s voice sounded funny. Worried. She climbed on deck and searched for Sebastian. He was mounted, just off the prow of the boat, watching for her. “What’s wrong?”
“The time,” he said gravely.
She gasped, looking up at the sky. “How did it get so late? Father will have my hide for a rug!”
“You mean my hide.” His smile was strained. She knew there was a very real possibility of punishment for him.
“What do we do about Meedo?”
“I’ll be fine,” Meedo said from on deck behind her, causing her to jump. He was shaky on his feet, but he stood on his own. “When the tide re-floats us, Remini will get us to safety. Look for me at Fair Haven Port. There is still the matter of my debt to you.”
“I’ll come back by high tide, if I can,” Sebastian said. “I pulled her up pretty high. You’ll need help getting her afloat.”
“Until I see you next,” Meedo said as Aslynn dropped to the sand, and Sebastian handed her the reins to her horse.
She mounted and waved to him, then Sebastian whistled up Artemis and they rode off along the beach.
Meedo lifted the velvet sack, loosened the drawstring, and shook its content out onto his palm. The crystal ball glittered, even on this cloudy day, and Meedo knew the nearest Ley line had been drawn to the perfect sphere, lending its ethereal power to the object. Good. The proximity of the mystical power source would give his search better odds of succeeding.
Balancing it between his thumb and first two fingers, he held it up so the two retreating figures were reflected in it, upside down.
Feeling the Ley enter his fingertips where they connected with the sphere, he let the power infuse him. “Show me,” he commanded.
Slowly, the image righted itself, and then grew larger, focusing in on the lad. Only, it wasn’t the lad—it was the girl. Meedo shook his head. No. It was the lad, just different somehow. “A mystery, indeed."