Tawnia lowered the spyglass and backed into the darkened corner of the courtyard as Sebastian crossed over to the stables. She had not been able to hear the conversation in the loft, but she had seen enough, using all her skill to enhance the shadows seen through the glass.
This coming and going through windows and the presence of the Wingfield heir were problematic, but what demanded her complete attention was the fact that Isaiah was right: Aslynn and the boy shared the love of siblings—it was in every motion, every touch they shared. And she had seen in the boy what she hadn’t noticed before: traces of magic—white Ley—blurred her Sight when she searched for Truth in him.
“Why did I never notice?” she asked herself. “How could I have been so blind?”
She realized she had hardly laid eyes on the boy since he was brought to the castle. As a stable servant, he was not allowed in the inner rooms of the keep, and she rarely left them. Oh, she had seen him from the window from time to time—enough that she knew his figure from a distance—but the thought that he might be other than he seemed had never entered her mind.
Now she was quite certain the inconceivable had happened. The king’s firstborn boy-child had never left the kingdom. If the truth of his heritage and the circumstances leading up to his current situation ever came out, not only would her son cease to be the heir apparent, but her life would most likely be forfeit. Even if he wasn’t the true heir, she had to get rid of the boy, just to be certain.
“How?” she wondered aloud. “How did this happen?”
Someone had taken great pains to cast a spell strong enough to disguise the boy—a spell that had lasted fifteen years. The sheer complexity of the accomplishment was more than even her understanding of the workings of magic could grasp. Ley, by its nature, was impartial—neither good nor bad. The energy, effort, and maintenance required to bend it to one task for so long would require advanced skill.... It gave her pause.
For the first time since she became Queen of the Bonnie Isles, Tawnia felt afraid.
Silently, Sebastian made his way to the stable door and pulled. It glided open without sound thanks to the lubrication he’d given the hinges before dinner. True to her training, Artemis was a silent shadow beside him as they passed through the door.
Inside, horses whickered greetings to him. He wished he could get one of them past the guard at the gate, but a horse was not why he’d come to the stable.
He opened his horse’s stall, pushed the beast to the side, and felt under the straw for the trap door’s handle. It gave when he tugged, and lifted to reveal a hole, gaping in the darkness. He swallowed hard before dropping inside, landing on hard-packed dirt only dimly seen from above—dark, enclosed spaces were not on his list of favorite places. On his left, just where they’d left them, he found flint, a striker, two candles, and a lantern.
After they had discovered and explored the tunnel all those summers ago, it had been Aslynn’s idea to leave the items in case they ever needed to use the passage. He hadn’t ever really expected to use it in earnest.
Striking the flint, he sparked a flame to one candle and mounted it in the lantern before pocketing the other. After urging Artemis inside, he closed the hatch.
Dark and damp from the recent rain, the stone passageway made him think of what it must have been like in that sea chest. He was glad he didn’t remember it, though when he was in places like this, he knew something in his soul remembered.
Artemis whined—a soft, short sound—and Sebastian realized the animal was picking up his fear. “It’s all right, Artemis,” he said, petting her under the chin. “I’m just being an idiot. Let’s get this over with.”
He hurried along the tunnel, wanting to get through as quickly as possible. He had a long way to go to make the beach by high tide.
As he neared the end of the passage, the air felt fresher, sweeter, and smelled of the sea. Not long after that he saw branches and leaves in the lantern light: the bush shielding the tunnel’s exit. Sebastian breathed a sigh of relief, and Artemis happily bounded out through the leaves.
He carefully doused the candle lantern and set it aside, along with the spare, flint, and striker, then pushed his way past the branches into the open night.
The moon was low, but it still gave off enough light for him to see, so Sebastian headed for the sea cliffs at a ground-eating lope. Even at that pace, it took an hour to reach Lookout Cliffs. Once there, he checked his landmarks—the stone formations hard to make out in the waning moonlight—and began making his way north along the coast, careful to stay well back from the edge of the drop off.
Recognizing the jutting point of land warning sailors of the Devil’s Jaw at last, he searched the expanse of beach below him for any sign of the stranger’s boat. All was dark; no lanterns shone in the darkness and the moonlight only reflected on waves washing at high tide levels. He saw nothing of the whitewashed hull of the boat, Remini.
It appeared he had missed high tide and Meedo had gotten the boat afloat without him.
“Well, saves me a trip down the cliff trail,” he said aloud. “I’ll check at the port in the morning.” In a way, he was relieved. It had been a long day.
With one last look at the beach and crashing waves, he whistled for Artemis and started the long trek back to the castle.
“I meant to ask,” Aslynn said, her voice breaking the heavy silence. She hadn’t spoken a word since Sebastian left, and Adam had begun to wonder if her anger extended to him, as well.
Master Jabari had checked on them and gone quite a while ago, but he had stayed awake, lying on his side, watching her shadowy form, wondering how he could comfort her.
“How your ride went.”
“Oh, that. Well, I completed the course, but Master Jabari said I didn’t ride aggressively enough.”
“Meaning you didn’t fall off?”
Adam decided she wasn’t mocking him. “Only once.”
“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” she said softly.
“I had the horse on the wrong lead approaching a barrier. He balked and slipped just enough in the mud, and down I went.”
Aslynn chuckled. “I fall off at least twice every time. Usually on the water jumps. For some reason, I just can’t co-ordinate them right, so I end up taking a swim.”
“That I’d have to see to believe,” he said with his own chuckle.
She was silent, and he realized that after today, her opportunities to ride would be few and far between.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s all right,” she whispered. “It’s something I’m going to have to get used to. When you think about it, I’ve been very lucky to have had so many years of freedom.”
“That’s your stepmother talking.”
“No, that’s reality.” She sat up, her face outlined in the faint light coming through the window. “Not many men have need of a woman who can ride and hunt but knows nothing about managing a household.”
Adam wanted to go to her, to hold her, but he made himself lie still, watching her.
“I have avoided thinking about marriage for too long, but I don’t see any way around it, short of running away. It’s coming whether I want it or not. So, I will learn from her, if only for the means to leave here one day. I only hope I learn enough to please a good man.”
“Some men marry for love,” he heard himself say, before he could bite his tongue.
She sighed. “I’m afraid love will have very little to do with it. My father will not marry me off to a cruel man, at least not knowingly, but I am the daughter of a king. I doubt the men who will ask for my hand will have much interest in love. Alliance, dowry, favor, yes. But love? There’s not much hope.”
Adam did sit up this time. She seemed so lost, so lonely. He reached out to touch her cheek gently, and she turned toward him, her face in shadow.
His heart pounded in his chest so loudly he thought she surely must hear it.
A sound at the window interrupted him, and the moment was past, lost to him with Sebastian’s return.
Aslynn did not turn immediately when she heard the sound at the window, wishing Sebastian had better timing. Adam, whose friendship seemed so different to her than Sebastian’s, had been about to confess something. Maybe something she desperately wanted to hear.
But she could not bring the moment back. Adam’s fingers, with one last gentle touch, fell away from her face, and he turned to watch Sebastian climb through the window.
She turned, too. Sebastian had removed his shirt and his hair was wet. “Is it raining again?”
“What?” he asked, hauling himself up and nearly collapsing before the window.
“You’re all wet. Is it raining again?”
“No. I stopped at the trough to wash up. It’s a long way to the cliffs and back on foot.” Heaving a sigh, he stretched out. “Ah, I’m done for.”
“To the cliffs and back?” Aslynn repeated. “You didn’t come back from the port?”
“He was gone when I got there.”
“All these questions. The tide was in, the boat was gone. I saw no sign of wreckage, though it was hard to tell in the dark. I wager Remini got him back out and Meedo is sitting in the Queen’s Arms, having himself a stout ale.”
“Sitting where?” Adam asked, confused.
“It’s a pub down on Water Street,” Aslynn supplied, hoping Adam wouldn’t ask how she knew that.
“I’ll go down to port tomorrow and make sure....” Sebastian was slumping lower and lower down the window frame, and his words ended in a mumble. He’d fallen asleep on the spot.
“Poor 'Bastian,” Aslynn whispered. “Help me get his boots off and him into bed.”
“Then I must go, Princess,” he said. “Morning will be here all too soon, and dawn had better find me in the barracks.”
Aslynn could not help feeling disappointed by Adam’s retreat, but she did not let it color her response. “I wish the sun would not rise on tomorrow, but I am glad I will be seeing you again so soon.”
“Let me look!” Edward demanded.
“Shh,” Katrona hissed. “Mother will hear you. Besides, nothing’s happening yet.”
“But it was my idea....”
Katrona only needed to look at him in the thin candlelight. Her brother shivered and subsided in his protests immediately. She smiled—the small, secret smile she had learned would throw people off—and turned back to the peephole.
Edward only wanted to see Aslynn get in trouble, but Katrona wanted to watch her mother.
The queen was pacing the room, looking far more agitated than a mere lesson should warrant. Perhaps this attack of nerves had more to do with whatever precipitated her visit to their suite yesterday and the questions about Sebastian. Not for the first time, Katrona wondered what, exactly, the queen had figured out about Sebastian. Something had given her cause to arrive, breathlessly demanding to know about Aslynn’s relationship with the boy. Katrona felt horrible about not telling her mother the Truth, but she hadn’t been able to bring herself to speak. Now, if Mother figured it out for herself, she might also suspect her own flesh had betrayed her by lying. That sin weighed heavily on Katrona’s heart.
Katrona did not know why Aslynn’s twin was unknown. She did not know why she herself had never told anyone about it, except that the spell of disguise cast on Sebastian was of white magic strong enough to last all these years with no one the wiser. So strong, in fact, Katrona had little doubt that it had taken the life of the one who cast it.
Such a casting was nothing to disrupt lightly; for all she knew, Sebastian’s life—her own brother’s life—had been in danger, and that danger might return should his identity be discovered.
And if that were so, Katrona wanted to know from whom and why.
Watching the queen now, Katrona began to suspect there might be more to her mother’s apparent attack of nerves than just Aslynn’s lessons.
“How can it be?” Tawnia asked the air for the tenth time. “What could have gone wrong? Who saved him?”
With all the guilt it revealed, that was the question Katrona had dreaded hearing.
“Oh, Mother,” Katrona whispered, her heart sinking. “What have you done?”
“What?” Edward whispered loudly.
Sometimes she felt one hundred years older than her brother.
A knock sounded on the door and Queen Tawnia composed herself before opening it, gesturing grandly for Aslynn to enter.
Aslynn stepped into the room with her head high and shoulders back, trying, it seemed, to look regal, but succeeding only in looking ready for battle.
Katrona smiled. Her sister was always ready for a fight when dealing with the queen. It was an attitude Katrona had always admired, but it would not serve Aslynn today.
With a sigh, Katrona stepped back and let Edward crowd in, audibly purring with delight at what he expected to see. Her brother was too intent on petty things. He would make a terrible king, unless he grew out of it before King Isaiah died.
In a moment of clarity, she added together her mother’s desire to see her son on the throne and whatever dark thread linked her mother to Sebastian’s secret. The sum wasn’t pretty. Sebastian was Aslynn’s twin. He was the true heir, and if that were known, Edward would not inherit. Katrona knew Queen Tawnia’s greatest purpose in life was to see Edward on the throne.
“What a tangled web,” she whispered. She was now stuck with deciding on a course of action. Should she tell what she knew, and if so, to whom? Or should she just wait and see what would come of it? It was no small thing to accuse the queen of kidnapping and dealing with slavers. Even harder to accuse her own mother. There was much to be considered, much to be learned, before she took any action. She had a gut feeling she would have to choose sides in the wake of the events unfolding.
She left her brother with the candle and made her way back to the family wing in the dark. It would unnerve Edward to consider how she managed without light, but it was a simple trick, really. She had long ago memorized all the passageways. Now she counted her steps and doorways, trailing her fingers along the stone walls until she reached the one she knew would be the playroom. Feeling for the peephole, she checked the room before lifting the catch. After she was sure all was clear, that Miss Claire still snored in her chair by the window, she slipped through the door, closing it silently behind her.
Aslynn wanted to turn and face the queen as she walked around her, giving her a critical once over, but she held still. Today it was Tawnia’s show, and she would try her best to be "good".
The queen began her lesson.
“You walk like a boy, my dear. Your posture is much too aggressive. This is where we will have to begin. Good posture is the cornerstone of grace. Without it, you may as well be a milk maid.” Tawnia grabbed Aslynn by the chin and pulled it down. “You hold your head like you’re ready to spit. Keep your chin level, and don’t tilt your head. Your shoulder position is good, though you needn’t thrust them back quite so far. Your stance is too broad, put your feet together.”
Aslynn took all these directions and modified her posture. It seemed ludicrous, but she held back her comments, reminding herself it really would help...somehow.
“All right. That will do for starters. Now, walk to the chair.”
Aslynn took a step but stopped when she heard Tawnia’s heavy sigh. “What?”
Tawnia grabbed her chin again, pulling it level, and this time Aslynn couldn’t help but pull away. Tawnia grabbed it again and forced Aslynn to look her in the eye. “Your good posture disappeared as soon as you moved. Assume it again.”
Concentrating, Aslynn put her shoulders back, but not too far, put her feet together, and leveled her chin. “All right,” she said, trying to behave. “Where did I go wrong?”
Tawnia smiled primly. “Too long of a step. To walk gracefully, you must think of the act of moving rather than the objective. Flow smoothly from step to step. Your body should not shake with the force of your step, your head should not bob up and down, and your arms should not swing so wildly. You are—or will be—a lady, Aslynn. A princess. Keep that in mind as you walk.” She paused a moment. “Wait.”
The queen strode to the bookshelf and pulled down a heavy tome. “This will do nicely.” Standing on tiptoe, she set the book on top of Aslynn’s head—not gently—and balanced it there. “Do not let the book fall, Aslynn.”