The Storm Prince, Chapter 5

Oops! Is it Tuesday already? Forgive me for the lateness of the hour. Right-o, here’s a new chapter for you all.

Riding jodhpurs had been laid out on his bed when he got back to his own room. They were made of supple leather, dyed gray. Beri nearly growled. The leprechaun body servant stood silently nearby, hands crossed in front of him as if he had to pin them down. Still, the valet made no move to help Beri undress. Apparently, the pair of them had come to an understanding.

“Gray,” Beri said, and the servant raised an eyebrow. “Gray is inappropriate for a hunt. Brown is better. It blends with the trees and the earth. It is harder for the quarry to see the hunter when he wears brown.”

The leprechaun inclined his head as if he agreed, but he said, “The Queen of Light has requested this color for you. She says it matches your eyes.”

Beri took a very deep breath and blew it back out. He did not clench his fists. “Well. I can hardly defy my hostess when she has been so gracious.”

The leprechaun smiled, cheeks crinkling up toward his ears. “Quite true, m’lord. It has never harmed anyone for the Queen to find him lovely.”

Beri doubted the servant’s assertion. He dressed slowly, as if he bore the clothes some grudge. He was still buttoning his shirt when a knock came from the other side of the closed door.

The servant let in a page in green livery. The child gave Beri a low bow, and Beri inclined his head as regally as he could, considering that his wrists were ringed with lace.

“I have come to take you down to the courtyard, m’lord,” the page announced. He puffed his chest with importance. “The Queen of Light awaits.”

Beri looked past the page for the “bodyguards” that had accompanied him every moment since he had awakened in the Summerlands. He was alone with the page and the leprechaun. Obviously, he had been playing Aynia’s game to her satisfaction.

Once Beri understood he was to follow the boy, they didn’t speak again. The page left him just outside the palace with a silent bow.
Beri found himself standing on a perfectly manicured lawn bejeweled with flowerbeds. He had never seen florae in so many colors, or growing in such straight lines. Their fragrance was the perfect balance of sweetness and rich earth. Near the center of the courtyard, a group of giggling children in expensive clothing floated a toy sailboat on a lake as clear as glass, in the shade of an ancient willow tree. The willow’s vines trailed into the water like long hair.

Golden light filtered from everywhere and nowhere without the benefit of the sun to create it. Fluffy clouds chased across the blue sky, and he reached out with his thoughts to test the intent of the wind. His magic bounced off the sky as if it was solid, inanimate. It felt more like a roof than an atmosphere.

He swallowed hard. Do not panic, Beri told himself. There is weather here. There must be, or else how would her precious flowers grow?

The gate was of delicate bronze filigree. It stood open, and people in the clothing of courtiers ambled toward it. Some were alone, but most walked in friendly clumps. A high-spirited laugh floated to his ears. Not sure what else to do, Beri followed them down the broad steps and across the lawn. The castle’s outer wall was adorned with climbing roses, and hard as he looked, he could see no thorns. Though he drew near enough to touch the colorful blossoms, he could not locate a single dead petal.

Outside the walls was a meadow bordering a forest. The grass was longer, high enough to brush his ankles, starred with white and yellow flowers. Ground birds trilled. Closer to the trees, a hound bayed musically.
“Beautiful day for a hunt,” said his mother’s voice, and a small hand slipped around his elbow. He looked down to find her gazing out at the nobles who laughed and talked amongst themselves, expression impassive. She was still angry, then. Well, so was he. She had changed her colors so completely he barely knew her. “It is time to present ourselves to the Queen.”

Beri said nothing, but when she walked he followed. His mother had long since mastered the art of appearing to cling to his arm for balance even as she led him.

They neared the wood and the concentration of people thickened. If this was anything like his father’s court, the closer a noble stood to the Queen, the more important he or she would be. Just as in his father’s court, gorgeously dressed people jockeyed for position beside their ruler. Each of them would have some agenda or political goal. They would be convinced, Beri knew from experience, that if they could only gain the Queen’s attention, they would be able to make their aspirations into reality.

As Queen Aynia came into sight, Beri saw a lord in a russet-colored cloak chattering amiably with the Seelie monarch. Behind him and a little to his left, a lady with raven hair and shining coal eyes caught Beri’s glance and smiled coquettishly. She, too, wore shades of brown. Based on her distance from the nearby lord, the dark-haired girl was either his wife or his daughter. A fair girl standing at her side giggled and waved a folding fan. Beri looked away. He had no energy for flirtatious ladies now.

Mother stopped him exactly four paces from Queen Aynia and her royal consort, a Selkie with loose chestnut hair and eyes of a violent blue. The quiet hum of their conversation stopped abruptly, as if they’d swallowed it. The consort cocked his head sideways with curiosity at Beri and his mother. His leathers were brown and white, boots calf height. His name was Connacht, Beri remembered, and he was the king of the Irish seal shifters. Beri inclined his head to the misplaced sea monarch, feeling kinship toward another Fey who must be too far from the water. Connacht gave Beri a faint smile in answer.

He was forced to look at Aynia then, and wished he hadn’t. She was dressed for riding in green silk and suede. She had twined her hair into a long braid, and unruly golden strands framed her face. She looked so much like Karen it stole his breath. He could almost forget how he hated her when she wore her hair that way.

His mother released his arm and curtsied very low. Beri did not bow.
Warmly, Aynia said, “Welcome, Lady Layla, and to the young king. You look well, Most High. You seem to have recovered admirably from last evening’s shock.”

Beri managed a smile. “I am well, and touched by your Majesty’s concern.”

Aynia smiled back, displaying a single dimple that threatened to undo him. Beri looked quickly away. It is not the Queen I am attracted to, he told himself, it is only her resemblance to her granddaughter. He had to get out of here. But just as he thought of it, his mother murmured something he didn’t catch, curtsied again, and dragged him away past the knots of courtiers. He had never been so grateful to her.

Mother smiled up at him and spoke through her teeth: “What are you thinking, you little fool?”

“I have no idea what you mean,” Beri told her.
“You lost control of your expression during your audience.” Mother reached up and adjusted the collar of his shirt the way any affectionate parent might do. “You cannot moon over the Queen in front of her husband. You may think you are invincible because of your magic, but I assure you, the Selkie King is more than a match for you. You do not wish to make an enemy of him.”

“I had no intention of ‘mooning,’ or of offending King Connacht,” Beri said. “It is only that she looks so much like—“

“Stop there,” Mother said, still smiling, “If you finish that sentence I will strangle you myself and start over with Nikkiana. Perhaps it is better that you were seen looking with admiration at the Queen. It might lay to rest the rumors that you are attracted to humans.”

“Mother, I-“

“Stop it,” Mother said. “Stop talking.” She refreshed her frozen smile, patted his cheek, and fell in beside some nobleman with blue feathers instead of hair. In a second she was laughing as if she had forgotten her son. Beri watched her go, torn between his anger and his fear.

Behind him and a little to his left, a feminine voice cleared its throat.
Beri gave himself a split second to close his eyes in annoyance before he replaced his court mask and turned. As he feared, it was the dark-haired girl who had met his eyes earlier. She was a lovely thing, her eyes almond-shaped and shining, skin cream-smooth and coloring pink as he met her eyes again. He did not remember seeing any particular amount of cleavage as he passed her last time, but this time it was there in tantalizing abundance. The lord she had stood behind earlier was nowhere to be seen. Not her husband, then.

I cannot do this, he thought. Not today.

“Hello,” she said, voice a breathless titter. “It is lovely to see someone getting along so well with his mother. I wish I did as well with mine.”

Beri gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile and tried to imagine a way to escape without offending her. “If you do not have your family, you have nothing.” The sentiment sounded almost sincere.

The girl grimaced. “You are right, of course. Perhaps I should be kinder to my mother. But she is just-“ her smile was embarrassed but brilliant, “-so dreadfully old-fashioned. I am Glianna.”

She curtsied a little, as if she was still embarrassed and not certain what else to do.

“They call me Beri.” He bowed, a deeper obeisance than any he had offered the Summer Queen.

Glianna giggled. It occurred to him she was star-struck, or pretending at it to inflate his ego. His mind played out the steps needed to bed the girl, one after the other as if in narrative. It would take an actual effort of will not to follow them.

“Oh, I know who you are. I was thinking. Avalon is an island, yes? Surrounded by water, more… metropolitan than it is here? You have probably never had much opportunity to go on a hunt like this one.”

“If you assumed so, you would be correct,” Beri agreed.

Glianna smiled again. “You are in luck, then. My group is in desperate need of a fifth. Do you shoot at all?”

He looked up and away, hoping to discover some excuse to leave her, like a bunny or a convenient space ship. His mother stood ten yards away, still laughing on the arm of the blue-feathered male. She had obviously been waiting for his questioning gaze, because she chose that moment to meet his eyes and give him a decisive nod.

Well. She approved of this one. Perhaps spending the afternoon with Glianna would prevent his mother from murdering him in his sleep.
“I shoot some,” Beri said. “I am no great archer by any estimation.”

Glianna giggled again. More smoothly than Beri would have expected, she slipped her hand around his arm.

“You are surely too modest,” she said, and led him toward her friends in a way that reminded him disturbingly of his mother.

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