The Storm Prince, Chapter 8

A ball at the Seelie Court seemed to be about the same as a ball anywhere, Beri thought. It was tedious and he was required to wear clothes he hated. He wore gray and white again, shockingly, but this time he had also been asked to don a pair of supple leather gloves. At first, he thought it was a fad specific to the Summerlands, but no one else seemed to be wearing them. It didn’t take much time to realize the gloves were a muzzle. Someone at the Seelie court thought the Birthright had to be cast skin-against-skin, apparently. It was not in his interest to disabuse them of the notion. One never knew when one might need to defend oneself.

His mother clung to his arm and babbled with her cohorts about nothing of consequence while Beri tried to loosen the strangling cravat which his body servant had tied with such glee.

A Sidhe lady in orange taffeta said, “Did you see the big elk Sir Mauri brought down? I daresay that rack will look very fine in his hall!”

And he tuned out again. Beri almost wished he hadn’t offended Mercund quite so thoroughly. Glianna, at least, was better company than his mother and this crew of old biddies. Wherever his hunting party had gone, he suspected it was better than this.

A servant with a tray of champagne flutes offered his wares with a bow. Mother’s grip on his arm tightened painfully and Beri looked away. He thought, If I were going to waste ten months of sobriety, this would certainly be the week for it. His mother took a glass of the amber liquid and he did not.

Beri almost didn’t notice when the Queen arrived. A hush fell over the room behind him, but he did not register the silence until his mother’s eyes focused on a spot past his shoulder. The plain Sidhe beside her curtsied so low Beri could not see her face. After a second, his mother followed suit.

Beri turned then, heart trip-hammering. He swallowed and tried to will his heart into a more sedate rhythm, but it ignored him.

Her gown was green velvet where it hugged her tiny waist and silk as the skirt belled out to the floor. Her golden hair was braided in an intricate net spotted with seed pearls and emeralds. She wore no crown, or even a circlet. She did not need one.

Aynia drew to within a step of him and looked up into his face with her wide, green eyes. Golden flecks danced around her dark pupils like trapped bits of day. Her face commanded his attention. He could not stop looking at her.

Beri swallowed and managed, “Good evening, Your Majesty.”

Queen Aynia smiled back, dimpling. “And to you, Most High. Would you be so kind as to grant us a dance?”

Beri looked at his mother for help, but she still had her skirt stretched in a curtsy and her face pointed at the floor. Her knuckles were white where she clutched her skirt. He thought, I am not going to survive this dance. I am not clever enough.

“I would be delighted,” Beri said, and offered his arm.

Music began to play as they approached the dance floor. A waltz. He had never cared for music like this. Playing the Ramones in his bedroom was among the kindest things Karen had ever done for him.
The other revelers fell back to the edges of the room. They stared with flat, bright eyes, faces inscrutable. Queen Aynia placed one hand on his shoulder and linked the fingers of her other hand through his. Hesitantly, Beri placed his loose palm against the curve of her waist. The gloves were too thick.

She let him lead.

He counted steps in his head; it kept him from being distracted by the lilac and grass smell of her hair. She looked up at him, smiling again. He knew how old she was, that he was her prisoner, that her laws were cruel and he was one foolish word away from a death sentence. But goddess, those lips!

“We had rather hoped to have a word alone with you,” Aynia said. “Would you mind if we prevented eavesdropping?”

Beri cleared his throat. Even so, when he spoke his voice was rough. “Certainly not.”

The sound of the music was gone so suddenly he lost track of the beat and stumbled.

“Careful,” Aynia said. “If you lose time they will know you cannot hear them. Mother-of-All knows what they will say.”

Beri recovered the steps of the dance. How had she blocked the sound of the room without a hum, without a whistle? She had used not the faintest touch of ritual. She merely willed silence and the world granted it.

“You have seen our daughter,” Aynia said. It was not a question. “How did she seem?”

Beri thought of the last time he has seen Mirya. Though she lived on Earth with the lover she had chosen over her own kingdom, she had seemed worn despite the agelessness of her features. They fought when he told her he intended to come back into Faerie to look for his mother. She said, I was once the Lady of the Wild Hunt. I should have protected your sisters and your brother. I should have been standing beside your father when the ogres took the palace. I cannot allow you to follow them to the gallows, boy. Not while I can stop it.

Her son, Julian, had been piloting a fighter jet over the Enchanted Forest when he was shot down. Would she know yet that Karen had died as well?

“Your daughter, the exile?” Beri asked, congratulating himself on the coolness of his tone. “Why is it of interest to you?”

Aynia ‘s sweet, soft smile faded for a second, and he saw something raw and unhealed in her expression. “I only hope she is happy,” the Queen said. “Did she seem happy to you, lad?”

Beri blinked with surprise at her abandonment of the royal plural. He knew what a slip like that meant. As Queen, she had exiled a traitor for crimes against the Summer throne. As a mother, she missed her child.

Or that’s what she wants you to think, his mind whispered. You can have no idea what happens inside that skull.

“She generally does seem to be happy,” Beri told her. “To be honest, however, the last time I spoke with her she seemed quite aggrieved at the death of the late High King.”

Aynia nodded. “Ah, yes. That was a day of great sorrow for all of us.”

Beri snorted, surprising them both. “Does Your Majesty claim to mourn my father, who so often defied your laws?”

Aynia sighed. “Every ruler has her own- or his own- idea of what constitutes justice. We did not often agree with your father’s policies. Still. He was our High King, and even here in the Summerlands, he will be deeply mourned. The ogres responsible for his death will be given their just rewards, we assure you.”

Beri swallowed. His hands clenched around the Queen’s fingers and side, but she did not protest. “I would very much like to be present for that particular retribution.”

Aynia tilted her head to one side as if to regard him from another angle. “You are very nearly the last of your dynasty, Most High. It might be wiser to leave the ogres to the knights of the Wild Hunt.”

“Wiser or no, there is blood I need to spill.”

“Hmm.” Aynia appeared to consider his words for a moment. “If we have learned anything, it is that when vengeance is taken, enough blood is never spilled. But you are the High King. It is certainly not for us to give you such advice.”

“Is that why you asked to speak with me?” Beri wanted to know. “To counsel against vengeful thoughts?”

“No.” Aynia sighed. “There is something…something only you can answer for me. We fear you will find it a strange question indeed.”

“There are very few ways this conversation could become much stranger.”

The Queen smiled faintly. “True. So will you answer?”

“I will certainly attempt it.”

Aynia sighed as if preparing herself for something painful. “What was my granddaughter like?”

Beri stiffened. Aynia looked up into his face, studying his expression.

He allowed his tone to go cold. “She was much like any other human. She was…loyal. Always one to lick my fingers after I had kicked her.”

For a long moment, Aynia was silent. “You are angry with me.”

“No. I have no reason to be angry with you.”

They danced together for a few more seconds, enveloped in magical silence.

“I saw her once,” Aynia said. “Her mother does not know.”

Beri said nothing.

“On the day she was born. I went to the hospital, and I looked at her through the nursery glass.” Aynia’s smile was faint and far away. “She looked…just like her mother. Only she was dark instead of fair. The nurses asked me if I wanted to come inside and hold her. They must have known by the look of me I was kin to the child.” Aynia’s smile faded. She blinked her long, golden eyelashes and when they opened again her eyes were bright with unshed tears. “I erased their memories. You are the only one who knows.”

Beri closed his eyes against the hard slap of grief. Why would she tell him this story, if no one knew? Was it a gift of sorts, an olive branch of shared shame that they might both love the same unlovable creature? Or was it a manipulation, like her face, like her waist under his hands?

He whispered, “What do you want from me?”

For a long moment there was only silence. Aynia finally said, “We have an enemy. Silvani Tarkis is his name. We would like you to rid us of him.”

Beri’s eyes flew open. “Rid you…? You wish me to murder him?”

The Queen’s lip twisted up in distaste, but her chin came down in a definitive yes.

Shocked, he gave a hoarse laugh. “No.”

The Queen raised one golden eyebrow. “No? You would reject our request so easily?”

“Yes, I reject it! I am not an assassin!”

“But you have killed before. Just now, you said you wished to take vengeance upon those that executed your father.”

“I have killed, yes. In the heat of battle, to protect my family. I may even do so again. But I will not kill for you.”

Her face was impassive and beautiful. “Perhaps you should take a moment to consider your answer, young prince. We are certainly not asking you to perform this feat without restitution. Your mother would very much like troops to recapture your homeland. If you aid us, we can see that she has all the soldiers she could desire.”

Beri paused. If his mother could hear this conversation, what would she say? His impulse was that she would not want him to compromise his principles, but if he was honest with himself, he barely knew her. She seemed desperate to retake Avalon. In all fairness, he was as frantic to go home as she seemed to be. Who was Silvani Tarkis to him? Was protecting him worth angering the Queen of Summer, a ruler who could control the growth of flowers and will the world silent with a thought? Casting the Birthright was not difficult. If he did not cast it for Aynia, it was possible that he would be abandoning his chances to see his homeland again.

Silvani Tarkis was no one to him. He was only a live person who could be made into a dead one.

Beri said, “I will not kill at your order. Not ever.”

Aynia nodded. Her expression was porcelain and unreadable. “Then we suppose our dance has come to an end.”

Sound washed over him, voices and music and rattling glasses against serving trays. He could see the pale triangle of his mother’s face, her hands clasped so tightly her knuckles were white stones.

Aynia stepped back from him, nodding respectfully, one equal to another. Beri returned it, then turned his back on the Summer Queen and walked away from her with all the dignity he could muster.
A waiter offered him a champagne flute. He took it with trembling fingers and drained the liquor in one gulp.

I am not afraid of the Queen, he told himself. I. Am not. Afraid.


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