Behind the wall, Edward sighed heavily. This was not what he had expected at all. Aslynn was to have gotten a lecture, or maybe a beating, not this classroom learning about posture. It would have been fun if Aslynn had resisted, but she was going along with it.
He shifted position and his foot kicked the wooden frame of the secret door. He cursed and shut the peephole cover, which snapped closed more loudly than he intended. Panicked, he listened for a moment, hoping the two in the room hadn’t noticed.
“What was that?” the queen asked sharply.
“A rat, in the wall.” Aslynn’s voice was calm. Edward suspected she knew who had made the noise, but he was glad for her silence. It would not do to be caught here, now.
“Come on,” Edward whispered, turning around only to find Katrona gone. In haste, he picked up the candle lantern and hurried back to the playroom.
Sebastian straightened from cleaning stalls when he heard the king call his name. He pushed the apple cart out of the way and stepped out into the aisle, brushing loose straw and dust from his trousers and sleeves. “I’m here, Majesty.”
“Ah, Sebastian,” King Isaiah said, approaching him.
Sebastian noted he was dressed to ride, and set aside his pitchfork. “Nomad is still turned out, sire. I’ll go catch him for you.”
“In a moment, my boy.” Artemis bounded up and nuzzled her great head under the king’s hand, begging shamelessly for attention. The king laughed and obliged her. “How is Artemis’ training coming?”
“Artemis, sit,” Sebastian ordered. The mastiff dropped obediently to her haunches, though she still wiggled like she was ready to go in ten directions at once. “Most of her mistakes are from youthful excess, sire, but she has the makings of a fine war dog. At least that’s what Master Jabari says.”
“She’s improved greatly since last I saw you work with her. There could be a future for you in training my dogs.”
“Thank you, Majesty. I’d like that.”
The king reached out and ruffled the boy’s short hair. “By the way, I do remember that yesterday makes it fifteen years since I found you in the sea.”
“I want you to know I have not once regretted that day. It would please me if you accepted this.” The king slipped his hunting knife and its sheath from his belt.
“Oh, Majesty,” Sebastian said, reverently taking the gift. “Thank you. I will wear it with honor.”
King Isaiah smiled. “Come, let’s find that horse of mine.” As they turned together and headed for the pasture, the king dropped his arm across Sebastian’s shoulders.
As a lowly stable boy, Sebastian knew he should feel uncomfortable at such a gesture coming from a king, but he never did. King Isaiah had always taken an interest in him, and the king was generous with his praise and attention.
But Isaiah cleared his throat awkwardly, now. “I meant to ask you.... Aslynn was upset last night—by something I’ve asked her to do, I’m afraid. I take it she stayed with you?”
“Yes, sire,” Sebastian answered, not surprised the king knew where his daughter had gone.
“Good, good. I know she is happiest staying under Master Jabari’s roof, with you. I wish she was happier in the family wing, but…well, she and my lady do not get along well. With these lessons, I’m hoping they will come to know each other a little and arrive at some kind of truce.”
“I’m sure that it will work out, Majesty,” Sebastian said, not believing his own words for a moment.
“Yes, I imagine so, but I worry about what will happen before it works out,” the king said with a rueful laugh.
“That was some storm the other night,” Meedo said, pulling a stool up next to the old salt who sat at the bar, nursing a pint of stout ale. He had been watching the man all afternoon and he seemed to be a sailor with a story to tell. A story he felt could have some relevance to the lad’s mystery. “Are there many such storms in these parts?”
“They don’t call this Fair Haven Port for naught, mister.” The sailor didn’t even look at him, and Meedo knew he would have to play this one carefully to get his story.
“But not all are as bad as this last storm, are they?”
“Oh, no. Most are worst. Storm season is just rolling in.” The old man did glance over this time. “If you be a sailing man,” his tone suggested heavy doubt, “you’d best head south for quieter waters. The Bonnie Isles in fall are no place for a land frog like yerself.”
“I’ll take your advice, then, Captain. As soon as I have finished my business here. Tell me, if this last storm was not the worst, what was the worst that you recall?”
The old man was silent for a moment, and Meedo feared he’d taken the wrong approach. Then the old salt sighed.
“That would be the Great Storm of '13. Fifteen years ago it’s been, almost to the day. Ain’t a man in these parts don’t remember that night. Wind like the Devil’s breath, and rain enough to drive a ship beneath the waves with its fury. And the sea—oh, lad, the sea was possessed of Satan. She wrought destruction upon everything she touched that night, and in her fit she touched many.”
The old man’s head sagged between his shoulders. “In that one fell night, I lost both my daughter and my granddaughter.”
That the old man still grieved for his daughter touched Meedo, but that she and her child were lost on the same night Sebastian was found struck Meedo as more than coincidence. He waved the barman over to refill the sailor’s cup. “How did it happen?”
“T’were the storm that killed her, but my bonnie lass had been taken months before. We didn’t know where, but we knew why. My daughter told me of a woman who wanted to hire her to nurse a child, but my Sabine did not feel right about the woman and told her no. She told me this, and how she suffered great guilt over this woman’s poor child. That very night, she and her daughter disappeared. The next time we saw her, she was floated ashore on the tide, her wee daughter still locked in her arms. Ah, it pains me still.”
“Did she tell you about this woman? Who she was, or what she looked like?” Perhaps this was Sebastian’s mother.
“Not enough to track her down—believe me, when my Sabine vanished, I tried. My crew and I turned this port upside-down to no avail. And then we found her, washed ashore after that cursed slave frigate was eaten whole by the Devil’s Jaw.”
“The woman was not on the slaver?”
“No, though drowning would have been a just fate for her.”
“Captain,” Meedo said, “what if...? Did you never wonder what became of the child your daughter was asked to nurse?”
“A ruse only, to get my Sabine away.”
“And the babe the king found after the storm?”
“I told you, my granddaughter died—”
“No, a boy child was found alive by the king, to be raised by the swordmaster.”
“Sebastian?” The captain turned to Meedo with laughing scorn. “What tales has that boy been spinning?”
“I had it from a reliable source,” Meedo insisted. “Sebastian was found after the same storm that took...that you speak of.”
“Stranger,” the captain said, his voice a mixture of pain and despair. “That could well be true. I crawled into a bottle the day I buried my two bonnie lasses. I’d already buried my wife, and a blessing too, or she’d have died of a broken heart at this. I swear I stayed drunk for nigh on a year.” He paused, eyeing Meedo. “Most folks don’t bring the subject up.”
“It’s not many folks who get washed over the Devil’s Jaw to be rescued by Sebastian and the Princess herself,” Meedo said dryly. “I owe the lad a favor, and he wants to know who his parents are.”
“If that woman bore him, he’s twice blessed to be rid of her.”
“That may be, but if she didn’t bear him, she’s the only link we have to his parents. If she were the lad’s mother, why would she be after a nurse?”
“Who knows? She’s accursed?” the captain said bitterly.
“Perhaps, but then why did they all turn up on the slaver? Listen, Captain, please tell me what your daughter told you about her.”
The old man sighed and closed his eyes. “It’s many years and drunken nights away, but I still remember. Sabine said she was dark. Hair like raven’s wings, charcoal skin, eyes with no color, only black. She wore a cloak made of white wolf fur.”
“Is that all?”
“Sabine said she was hard to look at. Her darkness was inside, as well. Soulless, that’s what Sabine said.”
Meedo sighed. “I suppose it is too much to hope for a name.” The captain shook his head sadly, and Meedo clasped his shoulder. “Perhaps it is enough. Thank you, Captain. Barkeep.” He placed a gold coin on the counter. “Keep him in ale as long as that lasts.”
“But, that’s a week’s worth, even for him,” the barkeep protested.
“Then feed him once or twice as well. Gentlemen....”
Meedo walked into the street and took a deep breath of the sea air. He had a little more information now. What he needed was to get the lad and take his measure.
Then, perhaps, he would learn more.
Aslynn was reading the book she was supposed to be balancing on her head when Queen Tawnia came back into the room. She had left hours earlier with the admonition that Aslynn wasn’t to let the book fall until she came back.
Aslynn had lasted all of twenty minutes—and that long only because she really was trying.
Refusing to jump guiltily to her feet, she rose slowly and placed the book atop her head.
Tawnia gestured for a servant to enter and place a bundle on the desk, then positioned her hands on her hips and glared at Aslynn. “Well, milkmaid, I can see you have been diligent in your practice.”
“It’s boring,” Aslynn said. “I assure you I could balance this on my head all day. Look, I can even walk around the room without dropping it.” She proceeded to float around the room, taking broad, smooth steps and swinging her arms as if in time to music. The book did not fall.
“You look like a clown. Perhaps the milkmaid has aspirations of becoming the court jester?”
Aslynn stopped abruptly and the book slipped from her head, falling to the floor with a thump when she did not try to catch it.
Tawnia smiled. “I have something for you. Claudia....” She gestured to the maid, who held out one of the items from the bundle. “I had these made for you. You will wear them.”
Aslynn stared in disbelief at the torture device being offered to her: a petticoat made with wire hoops. It brought to mind a portable iron maiden.
“I won’t...,” she began.
“If you want to move forward, you will. Wear them, or we will sit here, you and I, with a book on your head, day after day, until you do. The choice is yours.”
“Move forward to what?” Aslynn asked, her imagination running wild. What could be next? Hobbles? A neck brace?
“Well, at supper tonight, you could learn how to eat like a lady, instead of a milk maid.”
Aslynn’s stomach growled audibly, reminding her she hadn’t eaten all day.
“And then tomorrow, if you manage to walk across the room like a princess, we may begin dancing lessons.”
That should be enjoyable, Aslynn thought, though she was sure the queen would take most of the fun out of it.
“I have recruited young Lord Wingfield to be your partner. I understand he could use some polish, too.”
“But this?” Aslynn couldn’t help asking, trying not to shrink away from the servant.
The queen sighed. “It is in everyone’s best interest that you learn quickly, Aslynn. This will help.”
“If I survive,” she muttered.
“Speak up, milkmaid,” the queen admonished. “Or better yet, don’t speak at all. A man likes better the woman who knows how to be seen and not heard.”
Aslynn nearly bit her tongue off to resist commenting that the queen did not follow that bit of advice.
Queen Tawnia frowned, as if reading her thoughts from her expression, and Aslynn smiled prettily—an earlier lesson—and kept her peace.
“This garment,” Tawnia said, pointing to the item in the servant’s hands, “will restrict your steps to a demure pace. This,” she held up another garment, a blouse with more metal devices, “will restrict your arms from swinging. And this...,” she pointed to a final item, “will keep your back straight. Claudia will assist you in putting them on. Every day.”
Tawnia watched as Aslynn, assisted by Claudia, struggled into the posture modifying garments. They really were drastic measures, but given the girl’s age, they would be necessary for success.
And success was necessary for the plan forming in Tawnia’s mind. There was a duke on the other side of the island, an older widower. He was harmless enough to meet the king’s approval, and it would get the brat out of her hair. With the girl trained, the problem would be half-solved.
As to her other problem, she had an idea of what to do with the boy, too. All she needed was the right person to contact, and this time if a storm came up, the queen would be certain he went down with the ship.
The docks were humming with activity—sailors and fishermen coming in after a day at sea, or getting ready to set sail on the evening tide—and it wasn’t hard to find directions to the little white sailboat with the broken mast.
“Hello, the boat!” Sebastian called as he approached. The boat only rocked on the waves. Meedo was not there to answer the hail. “Permission to board, Remini?” he asked, not feeling foolish in the slightest. As if in response to his request, the boat drifted closer to the dock, and he hopped nimbly onto the deck.
He didn’t know what he was expecting, but nothing out of the ordinary happened. Remini had no secret message to impart to him.
Stepping down into the cabin, Sebastian found it had been cleaned and was now tidy as Mother Bette’s kitchen. He spotted the chart table, and Meedo’s grease pen and wax notepaper.
A note would have to do.
“Sir,” he wrote, his hand clean and precise. “If you need anything, send for me at the castle stables. I’m glad you are safe.” He signed his name and carefully stowed the pencil back in its nook so it would not be lost in weather.
Then, realizing he was effectively standing in a man’s bedchamber without his permission, he hurried back on deck, glad to see Remini had not drifted away from the dock.
With a pat on the boat’s rail for goodbye and thanks, Sebastian jumped down and headed home, hoping he wouldn’t be late for supper.
As he made his way through the busy streets of the port and up the broad cliff side avenue to the castle, he wondered how Aslynn was faring on her first day at becoming a lady. He almost wished he could have seen it.
If he knew his friend at all, he thought he could imagine the fireworks between the two royals. And if by some chance Aslynn had managed to behave, he had no doubt she’d be in a foul mood this evening.
Perhaps it was just as well that they hadn’t been able to arrange how they were going to meet. He was one of few who could put up with the princess when she was in a bother, but it didn’t mean he really liked to.
Adam was standing in the barracks doorway when Sebastian came through the main gate of the keep proper, and the young heir waved him over.
On his way across the small courtyard, Sebastian spotted his foster brother, Jared, lounging outside the other building—the one for single guardsmen.
Mother Bette and Master Jabari’s nineteen-year-old son Jared was Aslynn’s cousin through his mother, and his looks were a fascinating blend of his father’s dark hair and skin—though not as dark as his father—and his mother’s green eyes. Wiry muscles stood out from his short-sleeved tunic as he worked a whetstone across the blade of his sword. He had a little more bulk than his father, and there was no mistaking the power contained in Jared’s compact frame. With the training he’d had all his life, he was destined for a high rank among the guards.
They exchanged friendly nods before Sebastian returned his attention to Adam. “Good evening, my lord,” he called out, just because he liked making his friend blush.
“Sebastian, come inside.” Adam was agitated, and didn’t rise to the bait this time.
This barracks building—built to house married soldiers in less peaceful times—was empty now except for Adam’s things, and the huge room echoed with their footsteps.
“Ugh. Don’t know how you stand sleeping in here,” Sebastian said.
“Not as cozy as your loft, I agree. Now you know why I spend so much time up there.”
“And all this time I thought it was my ghost stories.”
“Hmm, those too. 'Bastian, I have a problem.”
“I thought so. Speak up, old man.” Adam was two years his senior, and it always amused Sebastian when Adam brought a problem to him. But then, Adam’s problems usually involved Aslynn.
He was not disappointed in that notion.
“The queen wants me to partner Aslynn in dancing lessons.”
“So dance with her.” Sebastian knew what the problem was; he just enjoyed torturing his friend.
“You think I can’t dance—I can. But...to have her in my arms. And after last night....”
Sebastian frowned. “What happened last night?” He had been so tired when he got back...what had he missed?
“Nothing happened last night. Only, I almost told her, 'Bastian.”
“Told her what?”
“How I feel. It was on the tip of my tongue, and she was listening. Then you came back and the momentum was gone. What if I just blurt it out, in front of the queen?”
“Just be yourself and dance with her, if you really can dance. You’ll be charming. Trust that.”
“Easy for you to say. You’re not in love with her.”
Sebastian laughed. “Well, my love struck fool, did you happen to think of a way to meet with her?”
“Only for dance lessons. The queen is being quite strict. I understand there’s to be a guard outside her door tonight, and a maid of the queen’s choosing sharing the chamber. I can pass along a message if you like.”
“Well, if you find a moment when the queen can’t hear you, tell her Meedo is safe, but he wasn’t aboard to talk to. That’s really the only news. Tell her to watch her toes.” Sebastian grinned.
“My toes, you mean.”