As they approached the castle in the gathering darkness, Aslynn slowed her horse. “'Bastian?”
“I don’t think we should tell anyone about Meedo and Remini.”
Sebastian grunted. “And how do we explain what we’ve been doing all day? Hmm?”
“Tell part of the truth. Say we were looking for a gift from the sea and we lost track of time.”
Sebastian reined in his horse. “Why don’t we tell about finding him?”
She frowned. “I don’t know why, but I think it’s important that we don’t.”
“Do you remember when we were nine and you had gone riding without permission? Your horse threw you, leaving you stranded miles from home with a broken ankle?”
“How can I forget? Dark was falling and it was getting cold. If Master Jabari hadn’t found me...but why bring that up now?”
“I never told you, but it was me who told Master Jabari you were in trouble.” Her friend started in surprise, but she didn’t give him a chance to respond. “You know I don’t believe in magic, but I knew you were in danger. I have that same feeling now...and it has something to do with the stranger. I don’t want to say anything until I know more. Please.”
He nodded. “I don’t understand, but I won’t tell, for you. Now, let’s just go home. Whatever punishment I get, I hope they don’t send me to bed without supper. I’m starved.”
“Me, too,” she said. “Breakfast was a long time ago.”
In the courtyard, they were lighting the torches as Aslynn dismounted and handed her reins over to Adam, who had appeared out of the shadows. Sebastian dismounted and headed for the stables.
“'Bastian,” she called, and he looked up. “Luck,” she said. He lifted his chin and rolled his eyes to show what he thought his chances were.
“Your Highness,” Adam said, looking at the ground.
“The queen was asking after you this morning. She was, um, pretty—”
“I can imagine,” Aslynn said, resting her hand on his shoulder. He shifted uncomfortably at her public familiarity. Touching him had never mattered before, but now she removed her hand, feeling uncomfortable, too. Seeing his face and remembering their easy laughter the night before...somehow the gesture had become important. Intimate. She cleared her throat. “And?”
“And not an hour ago, the king sent word that when you came in, I was to escort you to him immediately.”
Aslynn frowned. “Was he angry?”
“I didn’t take the message, Your Highness. If you care to wait, I’ll take the horse to Sebastian.”
“Thank you, Adam.”
She stopped in the act of turning away. “Yes?”
“I...we were concerned, Princess. You had been gone so long.”
Aslynn smiled at the young lord’s gesture, and he blushed. “Thank you, Adam.” She watched him lead her horse into the stable.
“There you are.”
Aslynn didn’t turn around at the sound of Prince Edward’s smug voice, just kept watching after Adam, knowing it would infuriate her half-brother.
“Look at me when I address you,” he said imperiously.
She turned slowly and glared down at him. “Oh, it’s you,” she said flatly. “Aren’t you out past your bed time?”
“You’re in trouble, Aslynn. I just wanted to be the first person to tell you.”
“Oh, Eddie!” she chided, knowing he hated the nickname. “Listening in the secret passageways again?”
Edward’s fair complexion darkened with an angry blush. “You mock me now, Aslynn, but when I’m king—”
“I hope I’m not around to see the day you become king,” she said sharply.
The boy jabbed a finger at her, and Aslynn slapped it away. “Careful what you hope for.”
“Go away, brat,” Aslynn hissed. Edward scampered away, laughing.
Adam cleared his throat. “Your Highness?”
“Yes,” she said, taking a moment to close her eyes and banish her anger. “I’m ready. Let’s go.”
Inside the castle, the smell of dinner cooking—roast pig, if she was not mistaken—made a hearty temptation, but Aslynn didn’t want to keep her father waiting. She strode with purpose down the halls to his study with Adam in tow like an obedient puppy. She wished he could walk at her side, like a friend, instead of some kind of attendant beneath her station.
“Ah, Aslynn,” her father said when the herald announced her. He appeared tired, and though he was dressed for dinner, he had been writing carefully on the parchment in front of him, still working when he should be relaxing. He had a warm smile for her, however, as he began to gather papers together. “I see you’ve made it back.”
She entered the room with Adam behind her. “I’m sorry I’m late, Father. We lost track of time. It won’t happen again.”
“That’s right,” Queen Tawnia said, stepping into the study from an inner chamber. Decked out in her finest dinner gown, she looked regal and very...queenly. “It won’t happen again.”
King Isaiah’s sigh was that of a man facing a painful task. “Please, let me handle this.”
“Handle what, Father?” Aslynn turned away from the queen to look at her father, a feeling of dread growing in her belly.
“There will be some changes, Aslynn. It’s time you began to take on the responsibilities of a princess.” The king sat back in his chair. “My lady will begin teaching you tomorrow.”
Tawnia stepped around the desk and stood in front of Aslynn. Knowing the diminutive queen hated looking up at anyone, Aslynn drew herself up to her full height, and the queen frowned. Emphasizing each word, she began. “There will be no more running around the kingdom like—”
“My lady!” her father said sharply. “I asked you to let me do this.”
Tawnia turned away without looking at him and moved back behind the desk. Aslynn took a step forward. “No more riding?” she asked. “Father? No more swimming, no...?”
“Aslynn,” the king said reasonably, “such things will not help you become a lady.”
“Then I don’t want to be a lady.”
The king sighed again. “You must learn.”
“At the expense of my freedom?” she asked, pressing her point.
“Some things preclude personal freedom, Aslynn.”
Aslynn couldn’t believe what he was saying. When she spoke, her voice was heavy with horror. “Don’t you think the punishment far outweighs the misdeed, Father?”
“This is not punishment, Aslynn.” The king’s voice rose slightly. “It has nothing to do with today.”
“It has everything to do with today. It’s all because I didn’t go to that bloody luncheon of hers.”
“Aslynn!” The king’s palm slapped firmly on his desktop. “I will not have you speak to your mother in such a way.”
“She’s not my mother!” Aslynn exploded, abandoning caution. “I hate her!”
The king’s expression hardened. “Nonetheless, you will become a lady, and you will do as the queen says in order to learn.”
“I won’t!” she said through gritted teeth.
“Aslynn, don’t make me give you an order.”
The princess could not stop the sob that escaped. “You just did.” She turned and fled the room, past an astonished Adam into the halls beyond.
Adam wanted to follow the princess, but he had not the freedom to leave as she did. He waited as Tawnia put a hand on the king’s shoulder and said, “You have done the right thing, my love.”
The king stood, shaking himself free of her hand. “I have broken her heart. But you’re right, she’s far too willful. I fear no man will have her unless she learns to behave responsibly.”
“What if she doesn’t come tomorrow?” Tawnia asked.
“She will come.” King Isaiah turned to Adam, who still stood in the doorway, uncomfortably awaiting his dismissal. “Adam, escort the princess to the queen’s sitting room at the ninth hour tomorrow. You may go.”
Relieved, Adam turned to go, but not before he heard the king say to his queen, “Let her have this one last night of freedom.”
Sebastian accepted his plate of beef pasty pie, unable to believe his luck. Master Jabari had only asked him if the princess had gone up to the castle, then told him dinner was ready and he should wash up quickly.
“Thank you, Mother,” he said, waiting until she was seated before starting to eat.
“Did you find anything?” Master Jabari said.
Master Jabari chuckled. “On the beach, boy. You were looking for a gift, were you not?”
“Oh, that. Well, there was a lot of wrack, but we sort of got side-tracked from our search.” He didn’t want to lie, and hoped Master Jabari let it rest at that.
“Pity. It would have been something if you’d found some clue to your past out there. It would have been fitting to find something today.”
“Pish posh,” Mother Bette said. “Don’t go getting the boy’s hopes up like that.”
Sebastian dreaded the onset of one of their arguments—the kind where it was as though he wasn’t there. He ate quickly, angling to be excused early.
“How is that getting his hopes up?” Master Jabari asked. “He didn’t—”
Just then, the door burst open and Aslynn sailed through it and straight up into the loft without saying anything at all. They all got a look at her tear-stained face.
“She can’t have eaten,” Mother Bette said in the silence that followed her entrance and swift retreat. Master Jabari stood to close the door.
“Will you fix her a plate, Mother?” Sebastian asked. “I’ll see what’s wrong.”
Mother Bette quickly fixed another plate of pasty, and he carried it and his own up the ladder into the loft.
Aslynn was not by the window, her usual place of solace. He found her curled up on the pallet she used when she slept in the loft with him, a scrap of tattered cradle cloth wrapped in her fist. Sebastian was surprised. She hadn’t sought its comfort in years.
“Aslynn?” he said softly. “I brought you some food.”
Her response was muffled. “I’m not hungry.”
“Yes, you are. I’m sure whatever upset you also kept you from dinner. Eat, and then tell me what happened.”
She accepted the wooden fork and scooped up some of the pasty. With a laugh at least half a sob, she said, “I can’t resist Aunt Bette’s cooking.”
It was a long moment of silence while each of them cleaned their plates. Sebastian could see she had calmed down enough to talk about whatever it was that upset her, though he couldn’t count on her staying calm once she started talking about it.
“What happened?” he asked.
She laughed, though there was no humor in it. “My stepmother has decided I am to learn how to be a lady. No more riding, no more swordplay, no more...going outside, I’m sure. I’ll no doubt be kept in that dungeon she calls a sitting room, doing needlepoint and quilting for the rest of my days.”
“Is it really that bad?”
“When was the last time you saw Tawnia sit a horse? Come to that, when was the last time you saw her outside the Great Hall? I don’t think she has seen direct daylight in years. I’ve watched her and her ladies in waiting, and I vowed I would never, ever become like them. Now, my father is ordering me to my doom.”
“You always were good at dramatics, Aslynn,” he said, gently teasing, reaching out to smooth a strand of her hair into place.
“You weren’t there. She finally got to him, Sebastian.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, ever since I can remember, she pushes him whenever there is something she wants. And he always gives in, but never when what she wanted affected me. Tonight...tonight he ordered me to submit to her so-called training.” Her hands made a small, helpless motion. “She got to him at last.”
“I had no idea he—” he started, but she interrupted, completing his sentence with stronger words than he had intended to use.
“Is spellbound? You think it’s easy to admit your father is under the thumb of a witch? I know they’re only rumors, but I can’t believe Father would just submerge like he does without some...influence. I thought if I refused to believe in magic, it would somehow stop it, but even refusing to believe in magic hasn’t helped.”
“You can prove she’s a witch?”
Aslynn sighed in frustration. “Of course I can’t prove it. I wish I could. She and Katrona.”
“Katrona? She’s just a child.”
“People say she’s a witch in training.”
“Since when do you believe what other people say, Aslynn?”
She gave him a small smile. “You do have a way of catching me out when I’m acting like a—”
“Royal pain,” he finished for her, and smiled.
She smiled back. “You’re right. Katrona is strange, but she’s nothing like her mother.” She paused, then added in a note of despair. “What am I going to do without you to keep my feet on the ground?”
The sound of the window opening caused them both to turn as Adam climbed into the darkened room. He approached them and squatted next to her pallet.
“I’m not going back there tonight,” Aslynn said, resolute.
“I’m not here to take you,” Adam assured her, giving a small smile. “I would have used the door.” He hesitated, then, “Your father said you...you could have this one last night.”
“That’s how he put it?” Sebastian asked. “‘One last night’?”
“You see?” Aslynn said, sounding defeated. “So much for my dramatics.”
“What are you going to do?” Adam asked.
“Do? The only thing I can do, I suppose. Take my medicine and hope she loses interest in her pet project.”
“You’re going to let her win?” Adam’s question echoed Sebastian’s. Giving up didn’t sound like the princess he knew and loved.
“No, Adam. I’m not just going to give up the things I love. But if I refuse to let her instruct me, I might as well declare war on her. I don’t think I’m up for that. I’ll just have to think of something.”
Sebastian took her hand. “Don’t you mean we will have to think of something?”
“I have envied your freedom, Princess,” Adam said, eyes lowered to hands that twisted the end of his belt. “And I truly grieve to see it taken away from you in such a manner. Let me help in any way I can.”
She took his hand in her free one and squeezed. “With two such brave warriors on my side, how can I lose?”
Adam hoped his hand would not betray him by trembling in her light grip. He wished he could confess to her how much her friendship meant to him, but he didn’t think he could stand it if she laughed, thinking he was not serious.
“Sleep on it tonight,” Sebastian said. “We’ll come up with something.”
“But I have to attend the queen tomorrow. What if we cannot meet again?”
“We’ll find a way, I promise, Aslynn. But right now, I have to go.” He stood up.
“Oh! The tide.” Aslynn also stood. “I’m coming, too.”
“Where?” asked Adam, confused by the sudden change of subject.
They stared at each other, and then the princess held her hand out for Adam’s. “Promise me you will not tell anyone?”
Adam rose and once again put his hand in hers, wondering what secret she and Sebastian shared, and happy she would consider including him. “I promise.”
“A boat washed over the Devil’s Jaw in last night’s storm,” Sebastian said. “We rescued the captain and I am going to go help him get the boat back out to sea to bring it in to port.”
“We,” Aslynn stressed.
“That’s where you were all day?” Adam asked, then felt supremely intelligent. “I mean, what’s the big secret?”
“The boat is unusual,” Sebastian began. “It’s—”
“The man is more unusual,” Aslynn interrupted. “He told me he is going...,” she hesitated.
“Yes?” both Sebastian and Adam prompted.
She cleared her throat. “I think he’s quite mad. I don’t want you to get your hopes up, 'Bastian, but he said he intends to clear his debt to us by finding out where you came from.”
Sebastian was very quiet, and Aslynn’s voice sounded small as she said, “I wish I hadn’t told you.”
“Do you think he can?” Adam asked her. “Find out, I mean?”
“He said that’s what he does. But he’s mad. He had a tiny boat out in that storm and he claims it’s magic.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Sebastian said flatly, going to the window. “He needs help. That’s all I’ll let myself believe.”
“I’m coming, too,” Aslynn said.
“No, you’re not.” Sebastian put a hand on her shoulder, admiring her determination, but knowing she could not go. “You know Master Jabari comes up to check on you when you stay here. If we’re both gone, then the whole castle will be turned on its ear to search for you. If you think things are bad now, it will be far worse after that.”
“But what if they find you gone?” she asked, putting her hands on her hips.
“Oh? Why not?”
“Because Adam will be here, sleeping in my bed, keeping you company.”
Adam made a startled movement, and Sebastian could imagine the young man blushing scarlet. He almost laughed. When the time came for him to fall in love, he hoped he wouldn’t have as rough a time of it as the young Wingfield heir. Aslynn, on the other hand, was silent. She was most likely furious with him.
“Don’t wait up for me.” Before either of them could say a word, he slid out the window and onto the pantry’s rooftop, where he made his way down to the edge and dropped into the dooryard.