Author's Note: So we're back in Findias. Finally! Everybody cheer! Ow, I just popped my wrist. Anyway, my trip was great. Surprisingly, no family drama. Well, very little. Got some hate-mail via reviews for some of my other fics, but you know, I'm okay with that. Scariest thing that happened was I found a scorpion in my bed. I went and got my dad and he killed it, though. But I was like, "WTH is a scorpion doing in Georgia?" Apparently following me from Florida. Anyways, so here we go. Hopefully this chapter moves a little faster and has more action than the last few, since those were mostly set-up for the Findias Arc.
Although don't forget that now that we're in Findias, we gotta deal with Ming Xian, Nuada's treason charges, Bres and his plans, whatever happened to Wink, the sick baby, the fact that Tiana (who remembers Tiana from chapter 32 and 39?) was a witness to Arrachd's crime back in chapter 32 and now Team Bres wants to kill her, the Midwinter festivities, and the fact that Balor still plans on punishing Nuada for the first 3-odd weeks he was gone without permission. *pant, pant, pant* So... yeah. Keep all that in mind.
OMG CURB! It's YOU! I had no idea you were still around! *hug* Wow, I haven't heard from you in ages. Glad you're still chillaxin' over at OUaT-Corner. =D
A Short Tale of Confrontation, a Prince's Oath, Punishment, Polar Bears, Certain Rash Words, the Ragdoll, and What Comes Next
Whatever you do, Nuada said as he brushed his fingers against Dylan's palm, no matter what happens, don't show them you're afraid. Everything will be all right, Dylan. I promise you.
The Elven prince knew she wanted to ask if he was certain. Wanted to cling to him like a frightened child clinging to a stuffed toy while the Butcher Guards hissed at her and the three ewah children. Instead, she squared her shoulders and stiffened her spine. He could feel the resolve firming in her mind.
The children saw their mistress straighten and meet the chamberlain's beetle-black eyes. A'du squeezed 'Sa'ti's fingers. If A'ge'lv Dylan wasn't afraid, then everything was okay. But just in case, they would stick with Tsu's'di and try to stay out of Prince Nuada's way. Just in case he had to kick some butt. A'du wondered if the legendary Silverlance could take all these guys in their weird iron helmets. Probably. He was the Silverlance.
Dylan fought back panic as they followed Lord Box-Head of the Creepy Worm-Fingers through the palace of Findias. The last time she'd been in the faerie palace, she'd been overwhelmed by the architecture, by the intricate tapestries and vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows and elaborate carvings in the stone. Now she focused on the echoing clunk-clunk of the Butchers' iron-shod footsteps along the corridor as they flanked her and Nuada and the children. Focused on the shushing hem of the chamberlain's black robes along the floor, which reminded her too much of dead October leaves brushing against old bones. Dylan suddenly wished for Moundshroud; for the otherworldly green of his eyes and rasping laugh and the scent of graveyard earth. The Keeper of the Samhain Tree would've been more than enough for these fae.
I won't be scared, she reminded herself. I have to be brave. For the children. If I let myself become frightened, they'll panic. And I have to be brave so Nuada won't worry about me. He has to focus.
Two small figures waited for them on the bench outside Balor's study. When the figures straightened and stepped fully into the light, Nuada blinked in surprise. He recognized the taller of the two. Barely inclining his head, he said, "Jenny."
Jenny Hob, head housekeeper of Findias, and the chambermaid Fiona, dipped curtsies to the prince and the chamberlain. "Your Highness. Fiona will escort your bond-servants to their quarters, if it pleases you. And your lady?" She made the last a question, as Dylan's hand promptly clamped around his arm in an iron grip.
He glanced down at her with a quirked brow. The look she gave him made it very clear that if he wanted her to go with Fiona, he'd likely have to knock her unconscious and have the hob chambermaid carry her limp body to their joint suites. He allowed himself a brief smile. Very fierce in her defense of me, indeed, he thought.
Then his smile faded and firegold eyes slanted to Tsu's'di, A'du, and 'Sa'ti. The children watched the Elven warrior with wide eyes. A'du's tail was fluffed out to twice its normal size already. 'Sa'ti clutched fistfuls of her brother's shirt while managing to keep Neytiri-the-Stuffed-Mountain-Lion tucked under her arm. Tsu's'di, on the other hand, met Nuada's eyes and merely waited, tense and ready. The youth's task was to guard Lady Dylan unless told otherwise by the prince. Neither demons nor royal guards were going to pull him away from his mortal mistress without a fight.
Nuada knew if the boy challenged the Butchers, especially in their current mood, the fight would end with the youth's death. "Tsu's'di," the prince said coolly, "take A'du'la'di and 'Sa'ti and go with Fiona. Lady Dylan and I will meet up with you as soon as may be."
Tsu's'di bowed. "Yes, Sire." A nudge from the ewah youth reminded the two younger cubs to offer bows to their prince and their mistress. Then they tentatively approached the hob chambermaid, Fiona. She smiled kindly at them, which put Dylan a little more at ease. This fae, at least, would do what she could to ease the children's fear.
And Nuada wouldn't have sent them with her if he was worried, Dylan thought. But it was still hard watching the three cougar-shifters walk away. Especially when 'Sa'ti and A'du'la'di both twisted around to shoot fearful glances back at their mistress. Dylan plastered an encouraging smile on her face and hoped they couldn't see the nerves buzzing just beneath the surface.
They'll be all right, Nuada murmured. Don't worry.
I'm not worried, she replied. Was it her imagination, or had the corner of Nuada's mouth just twitched? She slanted her eyes at him. What? I'm not. You're with me; what do I have to worry about?
"Your Highness," Jenny said, snagging the prince's attention. The hob eyed the mortal with surreptitious distrust. She didn't like how the prince seemed to have a hard time taking his eyes off the human woman. "After you and His Majesty the King have spoken, might I beg a moment of your time?"
"Of course," the crown prince said. Dylan felt the sudden tension coursing through him, yet his voice was calm and collected as he said, "If I have it to spare, it's yours."
She bobbed a curtsy. "Thank you, Your Highness. If you'll excuse me, Sire. Milady," she curtsied to Dylan, then to the king's steward. "My lord chamberlain." The hob quickly made her way down the hallway.
As the chamberlain knocked on the study doors, Nuada turned to Dylan.
You must wait out here.
My father said he wished to see me. That he didn't ask for you means you're not to follow me inside. You must stay out here. When her teeth sank into her bottom lip and she looked as if she would protest, he squeezed her fingers in reassurance. Do not be afraid. Some of the guards will remain out here with you, to protect you. And if anything happens, I will come for you.
I'm not scared for me, remember? She pinned him with rainswept eyes. What if he hurts you? What if he really is trying to kill you? Then what?
For a long moment, Nuada said nothing. Then, taking a deep breath, the crown prince of Bethmoora said tonelessly, If he has done what we suspect, then he has broken the oath he swore when he became king. It would mean he's no longer worthy of the throne. No longer fit to rule. And it would mean that, as crown prince, as the heir to Bethmoora's Golden Throne, I must challenge him for that throne, in single combat... or with war.
Dylan stared up at him, searching for a trace of indecision, a flicker of regret or doubt. There was nothing. Only cold determination masking pain she wondered if Nuada even realized he felt. He would really do it. He would really go to war against his own father if their suspicions were correct.
But you don't want to fight him. When he only looked at her, she insisted, I know you don't. You love him. And as much as you love your people, your kingdom... you don't want to be king. Especially now, with everything so crazy. Not with... She wanted to say "Not with what's happening between us." But even now she didn't dare. Nuada's pseudo-confession was still too tender and fragile a thing between them. You don't want to fight him.
As we've discussed before, my lady, my life is not my own. What I want and what I must do are hardly ever the same thing.
A muffled "enter" prompted the faerie steward to open the polished wood doors and swan through. With a flourishing bow, he announced, "Your Majesty King Balor, I present His Royal Highness, Crown Prince Nuada Silverlance."
With a final squeeze of her fingers and a whispered, Wait here, mo duinne, Nuada stepped into the king's study.
Balor, seated behind his hawthorn desk - the same desk Nuada had cracked by slamming his fist into it only a few days prior - removed his half-moon glasses and set them on the short stack of papers on his desk. "Thank you, Chamberlain. That will be all."
The chamberlain bowed low. "Sire."
Once the chamberlain and all but four Butchers were on the other side of the now-closed study doors, Nuada met his father's eyes. "Is this formal or family?" Nuada asked softly. Balor's eyebrow quirked.
"Formal," the king said, and watched with grim approval as the crown prince knelt before him.
This was his son. If the mortal could be believed, he was noble and strong, honorable, brave. Nothing like the beast Nuada had proven himself to be in the aftermath of the last war with the humans. Yet Balor saw the same rage, the same hatred - the same darkness - simmering just beneath the surface, like blood flowing beneath the skin. That darkness was reflected in the ever-deepening shadows around Nuada's eyes, the blackness of his mouth. The monster the king feared was still there.
Yet Balor couldn't help remembering the boy, laughing and reckless and so young. The boy he'd read stories to when Nuada couldn't sleep for bad dreams. The boy who'd broken his arm trying to ride his father's horse to impress his sister. That dear boy who'd once run to Balor with a smile and bright eyes. That boy, his boy, was still there as well. Or was the king blinded by a father's love and futile wishes? Balor couldn't be sure.
"Rise, Crown Prince," the king said. Once Nuada was on his feet, King Balor demanded, "Where is the troll in your service, Prince Nuada?"
The troll? Not Wink, not even Wink Ironfist, but the troll? Was that how his father referred to the warrior who'd saved his and Nuala's lives as children? The Elven prince ruthlessly suppressed any emotion before it could show on his face or in his body language. He merely said in a voice as empty as blown glass, "I do not currently know his whereabouts, Your Majesty."
"Are you lying?"
"No, Your Majesty."
"Why should I believe you?"
Nuada let a flicker of emotion show through. Not hurt, nor fury. Icy disdain spread across his face. "Why would I lie? Such dishonor is beneath me. I don't know where Wink Ironfist is. If you don't believe that, there's nothing I can do to change your mind, Sire."
Anger, slick and cold as serpent's poison, flooded Balor's veins. "Did you order the troll to attack my guards?"
Cold and emotionless once more, the prince stared at a point above his king's shoulder and said, "I did not."
"Then why did your vassal attack my soldiers, Crown Prince? Are you saying he's betrayed us both?"
A muscle in Nuada's jaw twitched twice before subsiding. "No, Your Majesty."
"Then why did he attack them?"
Nuada strained to keep his fingers from knotting into fists. "Someone with Wink's code of honor?" The prince said softly. His eyes zeroed in on the king's face, searching for even the barest flicker of reaction to his next words. "I would imagine, Majesty, that anyone Wink engaged in a physical confrontation more than likely attacked him or someone he was protecting first."
Balor slowly straightened in his chair. "What precisely are you insinuating, Crown Prince?"
Nuada arched a brow. "Nothing. Insinuation is the tool of cowards and politicians, Your Majesty. When I speak, I speak plainly enough. Wink fought your Butcher Guards because they attacked him unprovoked." Blood pounding through his temples in time with his hammering heart, he added in a voice that carved every word from ice, "Your soldiers ambushed my bond-servant in a civilian location, resulting in the injuries and deaths of several innocent fae. As if that weren't bad enough, the cowards mobbed him. I counted at least two dozen Butchers against a single fighter. Where is the honor the royal guard is so proud of, Your Majesty?"
King Balor rose to his feet. Old as he was, he was still as tall as the Elven warrior. Nuada stared straight into an infuriated gaze of hot copper nearly identical to his own and didn't flinch. His own rage pulsed under his skin, hot and dark.
"Watch your tongue, boy," Balor said too softly. "Do you think because your plaything is just outside these doors that I'll go softly with you for your insolence? In this room, in this moment, you are not my son and I am not your father. I am your king. You would do well to remember that."
"Oh, I remember it very well," Nuada spat. "How could I forget? My father would not attempt to tear from my grasp nearly everything I hold dear. He wouldn't send assassins after an innocent woman, or corpse-drinkers after helpless children! He wouldn't send the king's elite after the fae warrior that avenged my mother's death and saved my sister's life. He wouldn't put innocent fayre and humans at risk merely to get back at me for the gods only know what perceived insult-"
"How dare you accuse me of such things?"
"Do you deny them?" Nuada demanded, fury razoring his voice. "Do you deny you tried to have Wink killed? That you tried to have Dylan and I killed after assuring our safety? That you sent dullahan after Dylan's retinue - a trio of defenseless children? Sent shandymen after Dylan's brother? Do you deny that?"
Balor scoffed. "Of course I deny such wild tales. If nothing else, I've nothing to gain from such actions!"
Send assassins after an innocent woman, the prince had said. The woman on the other side of the door? Was that why there was such fury in the crown prince, because the human girl had nearly been harmed? Or because someone, anyone, had dared to try and take away a possession of the mighty Prince Nuada Silverlance? Affection or possessiveness?
And that was even assuming what Nuada said was true to begin with. He was long past the age where falsehood was easily caught as it slipped off his tongue. But... Sent corpse-drinkers after helpless children. What had the prince meant by that?
"Unless you sought to break me," his son muttered. Bitterness was as wormwood on his tongue. Rage smoldered in his belly. "That was my lady's suggestion when I defended you to her, saying you couldn't possibly have been the one responsible because you would never behave the coward in such a way. I told her if you sought to take my life, you wouldn't use subterfuge to do it. And she said perhaps that wasn't what you sought. Perhaps you only sought to shatter me."
He took a deep breath. Another. There was nothing he could do about the emotion thickening in his throat, so he merely met Balor's eyes and asked softly, "Is that what you wanted, Father? To break me? To bring me to heel by any means necessary?"
"My son… I-"
"I trusted you with this!" Nuada cried, unable to look at his father any longer. "I trusted you with how I felt for Dylan, thinking you would be happy. Thinking you would be glad that at least one human had softened my heart. Glad I'd found someone who... but then..." In his mind's eye, he saw her falling to the grass. Saw the dipsa serpents flocking to her, fangs bared, eager to draw mortal blood. The Elven warrior forced back a shudder. "But then you try to take her from me. Why, Father? For my disobedience in not returning when you asked? For that, you would murder an innocent woman? For that, you would try to break my spirit? My heart?"
"Break your heart?" The king echoed, and he could feel the slender thread that had begun to form between him and his son a few days ago, feel it hovering just on the edge of breaking, and knew he was being cruel, but knew it was necessary when he said, "It's rather difficult to break something that doesn't exist."
Nuada couldn't stop his flinch. Furious with himself, he forced his face into a blank mask.
So. There it was. His father thought him truly heartless. Well enough.
Stiffening his spine, Nuada cleared his throat and said too softly, "I see. Well, Majesty, perhaps you might consider this. You claim you didn't send the Butcher Guards to Midnight Fest to attack Wink. Yet attack him they did. If you didn't order it, then someone else is commanding your soldiers. Surely that worries you."
"It would if you were telling the truth," the king said. It was harder than it should've been for Balor to meet his son's eyes. They were blank of any emotion. There wasn't even any anger. Merely emptiness. "Which I doubt."
"Fetch Nuala, then," Nuada snapped. "Have her read my thoughts. Have her test the truth of my words."
"I'll not bring my daughter here until I'm certain you are no threat."
Nuada had thought he was beyond feeling the sting of his father's words. He'd been wrong. "You think... you think I would harm Nuala? Even if my love for her did not prevent it, hurting her would be the same as hurting myself. Why would I-"
"In case I wasn't clear, Crown Prince, you are suspected of treason. You're accused of acting against your king and your country, of attempting to usurp my authority, slay my soldiers, and of plotting to steal the throne before your due time. If I thought you capable of all of that, why shouldn't I believe you capable of harming your princess as well?"
"Plotting to steal the throne?" Nuada echoed. Something bitter edged the incredulous half-smile that stretched the dark mouth. "As if I would. As if I'd want it right now. In a hundred years, perhaps I might want it, but now? No, I don't want it now. Unless forced to it by the Fates, I wouldn't take it now."
Balor arched a brow. "Oh? And why not? What will be different a hundred years from now?"
"Dylan will be dead." His father stared at him. "Oh, I see. Even that day, when you offered your advice and granted me time with her, it was a trick. You didn't truly believe I could love her. Do you believe me capable of love at all? No, of course not. I have no heart, you said. Like the Golden Army," Nuada added, each word fired by savage heat. "Incapable of love, of loyalty. Nothing more than a tool to you. Soulless and empty. Well, she knows better.
"It was quite the seductive little trap you laid for me, Majesty," he spat. "Of course you knew the allure of having someone believe in me so absolutely. You knew, didn't you, that I'd fall in love with her? Or as close to love as a 'monster' like me could ever come. You knew I would. You wanted it to happen, so you could have yet another blade to aim at my throat. Even if I were mad, I wouldn't dare try and steal the throne from you, Father - not when you hold the lives of all I hold dear in your hands. Wink. Dylan. Nuala. Even innocents who are my responsibility by virtue of my royal blood. You've played your hand very well. So what now? Effectively trap me, accuse me of treason, and for what? So that you might denounce me as heir? So that you might have justification to execute me?"
"Don't stand there and play the martyr to me, Crown Prince, when the sins committed here are your own! You attacked my soldiers unprovoked-"
"I have not been disloyal!" Nuada thundered, bringing his fist crashing down on the hawthorn desk. The crack in the wood split wider. "I've always loved you, Father! I've always tried to make you proud! Tried to do what was right by the standards you taught me! I have never acted against you or this kingdom! Never!"
Balor stared at his son. At the eyes nearly feral with hurt and betrayal. It was more than the glimpse Balor had received the day Nuada had asked for an order of execution for four humans. This was deeper. More raw. Doubt pierced him like shards of iron as he studied his son. Doubt, and a dark suspicion that still poisoned his thoughts. "You've given me little reason to trust you-"
"I've given you no reason to distrust me!"
"Calling for the merciless slaughter of countless innocents isn't a reason to distrust you?"
"The humans were going to massacre us all! I warned you they would be the end of us, but you wouldn't listen! And now here we are, more than two-thousand years later, our people are dying and the humans are responsible. You cling to your precious truce, a truce based on shame, and then punish those who would protect our kind from the predation of mortals. You refused to heed me when I warned you the humans couldn't be trusted."
The king growled in frustration. "What the humans do is in their nature. You've learned this through your wanderings during your foolish exile. They cannot help themselves."
"So you knew they would betray the truce and you forged it anyway?" This was an old argument. Countless times, Nuada and Balor had circled each other, snarling about honor and mercy, justice and vengeance. Nuada could feel himself falling into that circumlocutious trap but wasn't sure how to stop. It dragged at him, like quicksand, and he couldn't seem to escape it no matter how he tried. "How dare you say I am the one who acts against the kingdom when you have done this?"
"I've obeyed the dictates of my honor!"
"So have I! And let me tell you, Father, my honor is not so flimsy a thing as yours seems to be. My honor isn't an excuse for doing what I know is wrong, or a shield to hide behind when doing what is right is too difficult for lesser men. There is no honor in abandoning your people to be the pet of a corrupt race!"
"There is even less in the soulless butchery of civilian women and children, Crown Prince, yet you stood by and allowed it to happen."
Nuada fought not to step back. Managed to keep his reaction to a mere, nearly imperceptible flinch. Monster. Murderer. Child-killer. Ethine's words. His father's. His sister's. Heartless beast. Soulless. Whispered by so many. The prince tightened his gloved hands into fists.
"Allowed? I allowed it? What could I do, Majesty, when the unstoppable Golden Army followed your orders? 'Kill the humans,' you commanded them, and so they did. You thought they would stop when they reached the edges of the mortal armies. You didn't think a fae could create something so merciless. And when you saw the slaughter that had come about because of your orders, what did you do? You blamed me." The one who still had nightmares about the things he'd seen. "You blamed the Golden Army, you blamed the Sigri of the Bethmooran goblins, and you blamed me. You blamed everyone but yourself."
"And when I said such a thing could never happen again, you argued for the continued use of that accursed monstrosity. How could you claim to value the lives of the innocent and still argue for the Army? Argue against peace with our enemies that we'd wronged so deeply?"
"Because there would be no peace! There is no peace! There is only death at their hands! You weren't there on those battlefields. You didn't smell the reek of slaughter; hear the screams of dying men and women and children. People I knew. People I loved. You didn't see families ripped apart, forests burning, villages and towns and cities razed to the ground, the world drowning in blood. You wanted peace with them? With them? How long would that peace last - a decade? Two at the most? Within twenty years, the humans broke the treaty, and instead of using the Golden Army, instead of reminding them of what they'd sworn, you gave in. Because of your cowardice, our people died by the thousands! They're still dying!"
"Better to fade into death and twilight than to flood the world with more innocent blood, Crown Prince."
Bronze eyes narrowed. Nuada hissed, "Better to burn than fade, Majesty."
"Spoken like a true monster."
Balor regretted the words almost before they spilled off his tongue. A soft sound of pain ripped through the ensuing silence. Nuada jerked back a step. Even now... even now, with so much at stake, with so much riding on this conversation, he'd still allowed his father's words to slice through him. Allowed himself a moment of weakness he could ill afford. A tremor shivered through him. He sank his teeth into his tongue to allow the sparks of pain to calm his sudden shakes. Forced himself to stand at attention once more.
"Are we finished here, Sire?" Prince Nuada Silverlance asked. The wall of court standing and noble rank slicing between the two Elves was almost tangible. Balor felt the divide widening between them yet again. The prince added, "I've answered your questions. My vassal did not attack your soldiers unprovoked. Are we finished?"
"Nearly," the king replied. "Swear you do not mean to spark civil war among the people of Bethmoora. Swear you won't try to usurp Us and steal the throne before your appointed time."
After a long silence, Nuada asked softly, "Do you truly need such an oath from me, Athair?"
"As king of Bethmoora, We demand it of you, Crown Prince."
"Very well." Dropping effortlessly to one knee and bowing his head before his king, Nuada said, "I, Prince Nuada Silverlance, son of King Balor, heir to the Golden Throne of Bethmoora, do swear by the Darkness That Eats All Things that I have no intention, nor have I ever had the intention, of betraying my king, of usurping his throne, or of attempting in any way to gain that throne for myself before my proper time. I do swear by that Living Darkness that all I do, all I've ever done as the Crown Prince of Bethmoora, is for the benefit of my kingdom and my people. I do swear I am loyal to my father King Balor and to my country; that both my king and my kingdom have my allegiance and both have my love." Raising his head, he finished by saying softly, "And I swear, by the Darkness that dwells beneath Faerie, that I would never and will never betray either."
He met his father's eyes, and knew his expression was beseeching. There was nothing Nuada could do to erase the pleading from his eyes. For just a moment he thought he saw his father waver. Thought he caught a glimpse of softness in aged amber eyes. For that moment, Nuada allowed himself to hope.
Maybe his father hadn't tried to hurt him so cruelly. Maybe it was all a misunderstanding, some plot by an as-yet-unknown enemy against both of them. Maybe what they'd begun building the day he'd come to Findias on Dylan's behalf would continue to grow between them. Maybe - just maybe - he could have his father back.
Then Balor's expression went hard as stone. His eyes grew cold. He turned away. Nuada let his head fall once more. Was he shaking again? He couldn't afford weakness now, not in front of the king. But a tremor shivered through him and he didn't know how to make it stop. He clenched his teeth. Tasted the fey sweetness of his own blood when he bit his tongue again. The pain did little for his self-control.
"Your punishment for your continued absence from this court after We ordered your return still awaits, Crown Prince," Balor said, bringing Nuada's attention back to the king. "Are you ready to receive your sentence?"
"I am, Majesty."
Balor steepled his fingers. "Very well. You are hereby under house arrest, from now until the spring equinox. You may not leave Findias without my express permission and an armed escort of at least a dozen Butcher Guards. You will accept an armed guard outside the doors of your chambers at all times. When We require your presence at court functions, you will be present and punctual. And you will surrender the Silverlance to Us now."
For a long moment, Nuada was certain he'd misunderstood that last. He could only gape at his father. "I... am to... surrender the Silverlance?"
Topaz eyes were empty of sympathy or any other emotion. "You've been found unworthy to bear that weapon."
"Unworthy?" He echoed. "Father, you cannot... it's my best weapon. Dylan is in danger here; I cannot give up my best line of defense when her life is at risk!"
"Then take more guards."
"That's not good enough!" Nuada protested. "You cannot ask me this!"
"We were not asking. It was an order. Surrender the Silverlance, Crown Prince," the king said coldly. "We won't say it again. And once you've surrendered this weapon, you're forbidden to take up either Claiomh Solais, the Sword of Victory, or Sleá Bua, the Spear of Light. You are allowed to keep your own sword... for now."
With sharp, jerky movements devoid of his usual grace, Nuada rose to his feet, drawing his spear from the sheath on his back. He flipped it and extended his arm to offer it to his father. When Balor's fingers closed around the haft, the prince tightened his grip for an instant. Aged amber eyes locked with a gaze of glittering topaz. The message was clear: Nuada surrendered his weapon of his own volition, because the king asked him to. If Nuada was so disloyal, why would he do such a thing?
Another second of eye contact. Then the prince withdrew his hand, leaving the spear of Elven silver glittering in the candlelight on his father's desk. The red light limned the blade like human blood. Nuada could admit he felt naked without the weapon. A spot between his shoulder blades itched as he returned to military attention.
"You are dismissed, Crown Prince."
Nuada bowed. "Your Majesty."
Just before the door clicked shut behind the Elven prince, Balor murmured, "Good night, my son." There was a brief pause in the sound of Nuada's retreating footsteps. Even more quietly, Balor thought he heard Nuada say, "Good night, Your Majesty." The door shut on the sound of Balor's son walking away.
The old king dropped his face into his hands.
"Tsu's'di," 'Sa'ti mumbled, scrubbing sleepily at her face. She stepped fully out of the little bedroom she, A'du, and Tsu's'di were meant to share for the time being, which was attached to A'ge'lv Dylan's sitting room. The ewah girl clutched her stuffed mountain lion by the tail in a loose grip so it dragged along the floor beside the hem of her new linen nightgown. "There's a polar bear outside."
The cougar youth blinked at his sister for a moment. Surely he'd heard her wrong. He blamed it on the still-healing crack in his skull. "What did you say?"
"I saw a bear outside," the little girl insisted. "A big white polar bear by the stables." She pointed with the hand holding Neytiri-the-Mountain-Lion, so the old stuffed animal smacked the half-open door. One black button eye came loose. 'Sa'ti didn't notice. "I saw it from my window."
"'Sa'ti," her brother said. "We're in Bethmoora. They don't have polar bears in Bethmoora. Not even magical ones. It's too warm for them, even in winter."
"But Tsu's'di," she said as he picked her up and carried her back into their room, "I saw it! There was a lady on its back! And a little girl."
Just on the off-chance his sister wasn't imagining things, after popping her into bed, the young bodyguard peered out of the single window in the room, which overlooked the Royal Stables. Although he didn't see a polar bear - or any kind of bear - he did see a man and a woman.
The man had salt-white hair, like the prince's, but cut short. His skin, though, was black as a panther's. It stood out darkly against his all-white clothing. The woman was maybe a few years younger than Lady Dylan, physically. In her arms, revealed by the torchlight and the glow of the stables, was a little girl with flame-red hair who seemed to be asleep. The woman had the same brilliant red hair. A servant - one of the higher-ranking hobs, Tsu's'di was pretty sure - bowed to the trio and escorted them toward the castle.
"Did you see it? Did you see the bear?"
Tsu's'di sighed and pulled the blanket back over his little sister. "I didn't see any bears. Now go to sleep. It's past eight-thirty, so it's past your bedtime."
"There was a bear!"
"'Sa'ti," he said with a warning growl. "Go to sleep."
"Will you tell me a story first?"
He scowled. "Once upon a time, there was a great big battle, and everybody died. Then they all had ice cream with sprinkles. The end."
"How can they eat ice cream if they're dead?"
"They were resurrected by a flying pink unicorn covered in purple glitter."
The ewah youth briefly contemplated banging his head against the wall, then realized that would probably undo all the healing spells laid into his skull. "'Sa'ti, go to sleep, or I'm going to feed Neytiri to a rabid dog."
She hastily stuffed her toy under the blankets and scrambled to lie on top of it so her brother couldn't get to it without a fight. Tsu's'di bit back a grin and turned to go back into the sitting room, where he'd been waiting for the prince and A'ge'lv Dylan.
Flattening his ears, he snarled, "What?"
"Are A'ge'lv Dylan and Prince Nuada okay?"
With a sigh, he leaned against the doorframe and stared up at the ceiling. "Probably. I mean, the a'ge'lv is pretty smart. And Prince Nuada's the ultimate badas- um, I mean, he's incredibly strong and skilled. Nothing can get to A'ge'lv Dylan if the prince is with her. He'd rip 'em to shreds. He's the Silverlance, remember? And she's got that knife. They're probably fine."
The youth knelt by his little sister's bed and brushed his cheek against hers. His chest rumbled with a reassuring purr. Her whiskers tickled, but she purred in response. "Don't worry, 'Sa'ti. Now go to sleep, okay? You missed your nap today."
She yawned and curled up around Neytiri. "Don't need a nap."
"You are getting very sleepy. Your eyelids are getting heavier and heavier. You're sleepy now. Sleeeeepy. And when I say 'okay,' you're gonna shut up, close your eyes, and go to sleep so I can have some peace." He gave her a fierce mock-snarl with crossed eyes that made her giggle drowsily. He knew from outside sources that he currently looked like a puma who'd taken a two-by-four between the ears. "Now sleeeeeeeeep," Tsu's'di intoned in a fake-hypnotic voice. "Okay?"
Grateful, Tsu's'di smiled at his sister, who closed her eyes and snuggled down. Then he glanced at his brother.
A'du'la'di's fur bristled in agitation even in slumber, and every so often he made a small distressed noise. 'Sa'ti would be able to sleep through them; A'du had nightmares nearly every night. Clutched in his hand the same way 'Sa'ti clutched Neytiri was a twin-dagger sheathed by slim black leather and clasped with gold. The cougar youth knew his brother had received that Elven knife from Prince Nuada the night before, as a symbol of trust - and, the bodyguard knew, as a promise that Nuada and Dylan would come back for the three cougars, no matter what happened.
Tsu's'di settled his hand on the knife at his own hip. Prince Nuada had given it to him a couple days after he'd sworn service to Lady Dylan. Did his little brother hold the prince's knife for the same reason Tsu's'di often reminded himself he still possessed his own - because it gave him a strange sort of reassurance? Because it reminded both cougar boys that by swearing oaths of service to A'ge'lv Dylan and, through her, Prince Nuada, both their mistress and her prince had sworn oaths to them in turn? Liege lords and ladies had responsibilities to their bond-servants in the same way vassals had responsibilities towards their masters. Lady Dylan had told the three ewah that they, Dylan, and the mighty Silverlance were a team. They would look out for each other. Prince Nuada and A'ge'lv Dylan would be back.
He went back into the sitting room and dropped into a chair, unsheathing his knife to study it by the light of the freshly-laid fire. He really hoped their mistress and her prince were okay. Because if they weren't, Tsu's'di really didn't want to go up against whatever had managed to get to them, but the honor of the ewah would demand it. And that, he thought, would really, really suck.
Please come back soon, A'ge'lv, Your Highness. I don't want to have to try and kill anything that could take you on. I'd get ripped to shreds. After a moment's thought, the youth added, And I'd die a virgin. That would be embarrassing.
Dylan looked up the moment Nuada stepped out of the king's study. One look at the storm brewing behind his eyes and she closed her mouth on the questions jumping around in her throat. Then she noticed the prince no longer carried his spear. That could've been explanation enough for the molten bronze fury in his eyes.
"Come," he said sharply. Dylan got to her feet and fell into step beside him. She tried not to squawk in nervous surprise when a full dozen Butchers did the same, surrounding the prince in a circle. Rainswept blue eyes flicked to Nuada. The Elven warrior's eyes tightened and a muscle in his jaw twitched. He continued to stare straight ahead as he strode through the corridors with Dylan at his side. Since he didn't speak after that initial command, neither did she.
At a familiar-looking door, he paused and turned to the royal guards, who settled into a loose sort of formation along the walls on either side of and across from the door to Nuada's suite. The guards didn't appear to be looking at him, but Dylan couldn't tell since they were wearing helmets.
The prince yanked the door open and gestured his lady inside. She scuttled in quickly. If Nuada had been much younger, she was fairly certain he would've slammed the door hard enough to crack the doorframe. Instead, he merely closed and locked it before stalking over to the window, wrenching the locks, and throwing up the sash. He braced himself against the window ledge and leaned out into the bitter winter night. Even as Dylan watched, a few tiny snowflakes drifted down from the cloudy night sky.
Remembering the last couple fights they'd had, she hesitated to go to him or say anything. Before the attack in the royal forest, if Nuada had looked like that, she would've come up and put her arms around him, the way she had that night in her cottage when she'd been sick. Now... she didn't know if the prince even desired her presence.
"Sometimes I wish I could hate him," Nuada said softly. Dylan took a step toward him. "Sometimes I wish I could sever all ties with him, so that nothing he did affected me. So nothing he said could ever..." He clenched his teeth; pressed his fingers so hard into the window casement that the wood creaked. She took another step nearer. Moonlight filtered through the clouds to caress the spill of star-blond hair flowing over his tense shoulders.
"He took my spear," Nuada said softly. She stopped moving. He sounded so forlorn, like a child who'd lost their teddy bear. Dylan could tell he was angry and upset, but at the same time, she could feel her mouth twitching a little. She'd thought it was just the guards that had him so riled, but... "He took the Silverlance from me."
"You still have your sword," Dylan offered.
"It's not the same," he replied, voice a mere thread of sound. "I'm half the warrior I was without that spear. Half the man."
"Don't be ridiculous," she snapped, hating the undercurrent of defeat in his voice. Nuada's head whipped around. He glared at her with hot eyes. She folded her arms and stared him down. "Three times, off the top of my head, you came to my rescue when I would've died. Only one of those times did you have your lance."
"You don't understand; you're mortal, how could you? Without the Silverlance-"
"You're still Nuada," Dylan interrupted. "Still the same crazy-brave, honorable warrior prince who's earned my respect, who made me fall in love with him. You don't need a piece of metal to define how amazing you are." Nuada merely sighed. She could tell he wasn't buying it. Biting her lip and going for nonchalant, she added, "And anyway, you have other weapons. Swords, axes..." She noticed he was watching her now, so she deliberately flicked her eyes from his head to the toes of his boots in a swift once-over before settling her gaze on his face. "Spears."
It took him a moment to recall how to breathe. Had she really just... had she really...? A golden simmer of heat flooded his body as she smiled at him. Nuada suddenly remembered the way he'd kissed her last night, the feel of her pressed against him, her soft mouth beneath his. He took a step toward her.
She groaned suddenly. "I... cannot believe... I just said that," Dylan mumbled, covering her face with her hands. "Oh my gosh, I'm such an idiot, I can't believe I said that! Ugh, I feel stupid. Witty innuendo is not something I'm good at."
"Was your intention to make me feel better?"
From behind her hands, the embarrassed human murmured, "Yes."
Gently, Nuada pulled Dylan's hands away from her face. A charming blush painted her cheeks. "Thank you, mo duinne - for the intent," Nuada offered a smile that sent her heart racing, "and for the compliment." He ghosted his fingertips along the curve of her cheek. "If I may ask... was that an offer?"
"No," she gasped, blushing hotly. "I didn't mean for you to think, I mean, I was just trying to cheer..." She trailed off when he started to chuckle. "Oh, shut up." But she couldn't help smiling back at him. For the first time since their visit to the meadow in the royal forest before the dipsa attack, Nuada's expression was clear of nearly all its shadows. "Feeling better?"
He inclined his head. "The situation is still... inconvenient. I'm under house arrest; I may not leave Findias without the king's express permission. Even Nuala's won't suffice this time. We're to have a squad of guards accompany us - me, rather - everywhere. And I'm not allowed any of the three sacred weapons of the Tuatha de."
Dylan perched on the edge of the window seat. The window was still open, and winter air shivered over her. She didn't mind, though; the air was crisp with the scent of snow and felt good after being trapped in Roiben's underground sithen since the night before. "Sacred weapons?"
Nuada sighed and turned to stare out at the moon. In Roiben's faerie mounds, the moon had been ripe and golden. Aboveground in Faerie, however, the moon was still a few days shy of being full. Nuada's gaze bored into the waxing roundness of the Harvest Moon.
"The Tuatha de Danaan, my people, have many powerful objects in the king's vaults. Lia Fáil, the Coronation Stone, which roars when the rightful king of Bethmoora stands upon it; Coire Dagdae, the Cauldron of the Dagda, with which one could feed an army with nothing but magic; Órga Na Corónach, the Golden Crown, which now lies in three pieces, which gives a wearer of royal blood control over a vast clockwork army."
He bit his tongue. He hadn't meant to say that last. Nuada flicked a glance at Dylan. She watched him with curiosity in her fey-like eyes. "And what are the sacred weapons? Why are they so special?"
"When I received the royal scar, I proved myself a man grown through tests of cunning and skill. By passing those tests, I proved myself worthy of the inheritance that is the right of the crown prince of Bethmoora - the right to bear the three sacred weapons of this kingdom: Claíomh Solais, the Sword of Victory, against which no man can stand once it's drawn from its sheath; Sleá Bua, the Spear of Light, which never misses its target when thrown and cannot be defeated in battle; and Áirgetlámh, the Silverlance, the weapon of the man who is heir to the Golden Throne, which cannot be used against its wielder. My father has forbidden me to take up any of them until he deems me worthy once more."
The hammer of Nuada's fist smashed into the side of the window casement. Dylan jumped. Speaking now more to himself than to her, Nuada demanded in a low vow, "Does he mean to disown me? To strip me of my title as heir? Will he take the throne from me? Over a simple matter of being absent for less than a full moon? I was doing what he wanted; taking care of a human. Why is he doing this?"
When he unclenched his fist, Dylan saw amber blood well up from a few tiny cuts on the side of his hand.
"You're hurt," she said softly. Reached for his hand. He jerked away from her.
"Don't touch me." In less than ten minutes the light mood had vanished, leaving rage and bitterness in its wake. Nuada glared out the window, his eyes molten with fury. He leaned against the casement again. His fingers ached with the pressure of his grip. "No amount of coddling or petting will erase what's happened tonight."
Unsure of her footing once again, Dylan murmured, "I just want to help."
"Well, you can't," he snapped. She flinched. "What good is a human in this? Without my best weapon, you're twice as vulnerable. I was foolish to bring you here; I should've left you in the mortal realms where you wouldn't be a liability. Now my feelings for you make you just another knife at my throat." He could almost feel the noose tightening around his neck. "By the Fates... what was I thinking, allowing myself to feel any softness for a mortal?" The bitterness in his tone made Dylan's eyes sting. "I should've known my father was only using you as bait to weaken me. Stars curse it anyway. And now I'm trapped."
She abruptly got to her feet. Turned to the door joining this main room of Nuada's suite to the sitting room in her suite. "I'm sorry I'm such an inconvenience. I'll try to be less irritating next time we walk into a trap. Good night, Your Highness."
"Dylan," Nuada said. Only her name. Softly, wearily. "Dylan."
"Do you... do you wish you didn't love me?" She asked in a rush. His words reverberated through her mind: what was I thinking, allowing myself to feel any softness for a mortal? Now I'm trapped. She kept her eyes on the door. "Because love is weakness? Do you wish you still hated me? Do you wish I didn't love you?"
He was suddenly there, his arms around her, his lips against her ear as he whispered, "Never think that. Never, ever think that, Dylan." Dark lips brushed her cheek, and he released her. "I'm not fit company tonight, my lady," he added, going back to the window. She turned to watch him. "You should retire to your chambers."
Dylan hesitated. Studied the bowed head and white-knuckled grip on the window frame. "Do you... want me to go?" He said nothing. Only a couple feet separated them, but it seemed as if the distance were somehow far greater. "If you want me to go, I will."
He kept his eyes on the thickening snow whispering down on Bethmoora. After a long silence, he said, "Go."
What had happened in the king's study? What had put that look in his eyes, that edge in his voice? Not just the house arrest. Something else. But Dylan didn't ask. She inclined her head and moved to obey. When she was at the door that led to her sitting room, Nuada added in a somewhat gentler voice, "Good night, Dylan."
Feeling as if he'd slapped her, she mumbled, "Good night, Your Highness." She didn't see him flinch when she shut the door behind her. Didn't hear him mutter something vicious and self-deprecating under his breath.
Dylan found Tsu's'di dead to the world in an armchair in her sitting room. A'du and 'Sa'ti were in the little room reserved for her potential ladies' maids attached to Dylan's suite, both fast asleep. The mortal smoothed back the two cougar cubs' manes and kissed their foreheads. Her heart squeezed brutally in her chest when A'du'la'di mumbled in his sleep, "Mama." It was even worse when, for the first time, 'Sa'ti whispered, "Mommy."
She took a few minutes to fully explore her new suite of rooms. Her sitting room possessed two long couches and a few very cushy armchairs. A lovely, soft fur rug as white as snow lay in front of the massive marble and stone fireplace. A few bookcases lined the far wall. She made sure all three windows were locked before moving on to explore the little bathroom attached to the sitting room. Perfect, she thought, for visitors who I might not want tramping through my room.
A small room on the far side of her sitting room proved to be a little private library with even more books, a cozy little fireplace, two armchairs, and a low hawthorn table topped by a chessboard, both miniature armies ready and waiting to do battle. When she looked closely at the board, she realized with shock that it was made of gold and white marble. Faceted amber and goblin crystal chess pieces reflected the light of a fragrant hanging oil lamp.
Finally she went into her bedroom and changed into appropriate pajamas. After the late-night encounter with Nuada the day before, Dylan didn't want to risk either the new set of silky PJs Kaye had given her as a gift, or her standard tank top and shorts or pants. Instead, she slipped on a soft blue linen gown that would've looked at home in a medieval film - something she'd worn when she'd been a few years younger while doing overnights at medieval faires with Anya and Joyce.
Feeling more than a little homesick and uneasy, Dylan slipped on her penguin socks. Wondering if she were being a baby, she then pulled out the ensorcelled wooden box that had been Kaye's Christmas gift to her years ago when she'd worked for the pixie at her cafe. Dylan carefully lifted the engraved wooden lid. The box acted as a preserver for whatever happened to be inside.
In this case, it was a pair of ragdolls. She'd made them herself while trapped in the institution from bits of string and stolen linen napkins, drawing their mouths with Sharpie marker and coloring their eyes with dabs of nail polish borrowed from one of the older, better behaved girls. Neither had names. One had been her friend, to be cuddled in secret whenever she felt sad or lonely. When Nuada had left, she'd pulled out this old friend and cried. The other doll had been her protector, to cuddle in secret whenever she'd been scared.
After a moment's hesitation, she pulled out her protector and closed the lid on the other ragdoll. Then she stowed the box in the bottom of the wardrobe which stood near the door to her master bathroom. Becan had told her earlier that he'd brought and stowed her two dolls, Nuada's glass and crystal flowers that he'd given her in apology, and her snow globe collection - including the one A'du had broken, which she'd fixed with Becan's help - in the massive wardrobe and put her clothes in the clothes' presses shoved against the foot of her new bed.
Dylan thought about putting the flowers and snow globes up, to combat the darkness that would be nearly absolute once she blew out the bedroom lamps. Wasn't sure if she felt comfortable doing that. Knew she was having trouble concentrating, knowing Nuada was on the other side of the unlocked door joining her bedchamber to his. She could feel him on the other side of the door - a restless shadow.
In the end she laid the yellow diamond rose on the nightstand beside her gargantuan new bed along with the glass violet that sang in soft Gaelic. After a full week, she'd finally realized why the voice in the glass violet and aloe blossoms sounded so familiar. It was Nuada's voice, the lullaby timbre of it unmistakable once she'd had time to really listen. Her scriptures went on the nightstand alongside her medallion. She laid the ragdoll on the nightstand too. The flickering light from the yellow rose glinted off the doll's gold-painted eyes, which were framed with Sharpie that had slowly faded from deep black to soft charcoal.
How funny, she thought, looking at her doll. I never realized... he looks like a Bethmooran Elf. A weary smile tweaked Dylan's lips. That's just too funny. I wonder why I did that. Then she thought of her own Bethmooran Elf, and sighed.
Dylan stepped to the unlocked door and pressed her fingers and her forehead against its polished surface. She wanted so badly to go back to his suite. Ask him if perhaps, instead of sleeping in their rooms, they could each take a couch in her sitting room. Or if he'd allow her to sit beside him on the couch until she fell asleep, and then he could carry her to bed. She didn't think she could actually sleep alone in this humongous place with the weight of Balor's authority pressing down on her.
If you want me to go, I will, she'd said, and he'd ordered her to go. He didn't want to see her right now. Everyone needed their space sometimes. She was a big girl. She could handle sleeping on her own for a night or three. No big deal.
Although I wish Bat was here, at least, Dylan thought. Oh, well. I'll deal. He'd be cuddled up with 'Sa'ti anyway, the little traitor. She smiled ruefully. He left me for a younger woman. What can you do?
Dylan didn't know Nuada stood on the other side of the door, though he could feel her just beyond the carved rowan wood. She didn't see him brush his own fingertips against the spot where hers rested. She didn't hear him whisper, "Good night, my love. Dream sweetly."
Dylan closed her eyes and wondered what had happened to pull her prince so far away from her.
Nuada quickly dressed for bed. Unable to rid himself of the restlessness winding him tighter and tighter, he paced the length of his bedroom. Wondered if his coldness had brought tears to Dylan's eyes for the third night in a row. Wondered if he dared knock on the door and beg audience with her while clad only in his sleeping attire. After last night, it seemed unwise. If he went to her now, and she was upset, he would have to kiss her tears away, and then he would kiss her, and then...
He'd dreamed of what could come after, though he forced himself not to think of it in waking. To think of it would make him yearn, and he couldn't afford that kind of distraction, especially now. He prayed he hadn't made her cry. She was so worried about him, and off-balance in his father's castle. It would be so easy to hurt her in the temper he was in.
He wondered suddenly if she'd yet noticed his surprise. Perhaps it would serve as an apology.
Turning away from the door between their rooms, Dylan moved toward the sumptuous silk-draped bed that dominated the majority of the bedroom. On the bright side, she'd always loved four-posters with curtains. This one, of rowan wood polished so it gleamed in the light of fragrant oil lamps, was draped with sapphire curtains and spread with royal blue linens. At least a dozen velvet pillows in various shades of blue made it even more inviting. When she brushed her hand across the comforter, plush sateen-velvet caressed her skin. And the thing was positively huge. Bigger even than her bed at home.
Something crimson lay stark against one of the blue pillows. When Dylan leaned over to get a better look, she felt her heart melt and a warm feeling fizzed in her stomach. On her pillow, tied with a soft ribbon of iridescent white, was a brilliantly scarlet tulip. Dylan picked it up and inhaled the sweet scent. Kissed one of the velvety petals. Another red tulip. Tulips for trust. His first gift to her had been a tulip. How did he always know just what to do?
When she fell asleep after reading her scriptures and saying her prayers, the tulip lay on the rowan-wood nightstand beside her bed, where she could see it in the flickering light of her rai flower. Her doll was cradled to her chest.
Beneath Dylan's bed, a pearl-scaled snake-shifter lay perfectly still; listening to every word the mortal spoke, tasting every nuance of emotion on the air with a forked tongue. His name was Jacques Dipsa, he was a mercenary from the kingdom of Gevaudan in the employ of Prince Bres and Lady Dierdre, and he had something of interest to report tonight.
The prince's little human whore was sad. What a shame. Perhaps Lady Dierdre's plan was already working. Perhaps a rift was forming between the Silverlance and his mortal plaything, which would explain why the human wasn't currently warming the prince's bed.
And he'd discovered something else. The enchanted flowers on her nightstand and whatever she'd pulled out of that wooden box were very important to her. Once the human fell truly asleep the serpent-shifter would leave and report back to his mistress that the prince had returned, things were not well in the land of romance, and about the strange items that had so much emotional significance to the human.
Too bad he couldn't take a bite out of the mortal before he left, but Lady Dierdre's instructions had been explicit. Jacques did not want to enrage a Fomorian prince and a gancanaugh.
Nuada didn't sleep. He lay in bed, staring into darkness, still oddly restless. He tried to forget the guards waiting in the hall, his father's words striking him like sharp stones, and the woman on the other side of the door who tempted him in every way nearly beyond enduring. In the end, he finally slept. Dreamed of her. Of desire. Of blood and death. He woke with the ache of loss choking him and horror sending rivulets of fear-sweat down his spine.
Dylan woke in the wee hours just before dawn from the same dream that had plagued her the last few days. What had woken her? A creaking sound. She was too groggy to really process that. It took her a moment to realize what she'd been experiencing for the last however-many hours had only been a dream after all. When reality settled over her again, when she realized none of it had been real, she clutched her doll to her chest and turned her face into the pillows so Nuada wouldn't wake and hear her crying.
Dylan hadn't managed to fall back asleep after waking from her dream. Dawn found her freshly showered, brushed, medicated, and in one of the dresses Becan had packed for her - one of her own leine, a soft wool gown of rich blue that she'd bought for a Ren-Faire a couple years before. With a gray ribbon in her hair, her white and blue belt that Nuada had given her for her dirk (which was snug in its sheath), and gray leather boots, she was fairly certain she wouldn't stick out too badly. Her medallion was a reassuring weight against her skin.
She'd set out her snow globes and crystal flowers (lacking her cat and his unavoidable cat-astrophes, she didn't have to worry about the height of the surfaces she chose) in an attempt to make the room seem more like her own. Now she sat at her window on a cushion, letting the wintry sunlight spread across her skin. It felt wonderful after being underground in Roiben's sithen the majority of yesterday. The icy window glass warmed quickly against her forehead. She closed her eyes to bask in the sun. Brushed the tulip against her lips.
A knock at the door that separated her bedroom from Nuada's surprised her. "Come in."
The prince stepped in and offered a formal bow. "Good morning, my lady." When Nuada straightened, his eyes softened. "If I may... you look beautiful."
Pleasure sent a blush heating her cheeks. "Thank you. Did... did you sleep well?"
A brief hesitation. "Well enough. And you?"
Now she hesitated. "My usual," she hedged. Was this what last night's brief, sharp exchanges had reduced them to? Small talk? Dylan forced herself to smile. "So, what's a girl gotta do to get some breakfast around here?"
He came and settled on the opposite end of the window seat. "Do you want to eat in our rooms? Or the kitchens? Breakfast is offered in the formal dining hall, but I doubt you want to be there with the rest of the court. Am I correct?" The corner of his mouth quirked when she vehemently shook her head. "Or is there somewhere else you want to eat this morning?"
"I dunno. I'd really like to eat outside, but it's crazy-cold out, so I know that's impossible..." Dylan trailed off when Nuada smiled. "Isn't it?"
"Come with me" He held out his hand.
They left a note for the children. Then the Elven prince led his mortal lady - and our retinue of royal babysitters, he thought sourly - to the kitchens. A brief exchange with one of the undercooks produced a basket, though Dylan had no idea what was in it. Back in the corridors, Nuada thrust the basket at one of the guards. "Make yourself useful." With a grumble, the Butcher accepted the food basket. Nuada then led Dylan outside. The frigid chill only nipped at Dylan's cheeks and nose thanks to the thick, wool cloak Nuada draped around her shoulders just before stepping out. Judging from the scent of feral woods, she was pretty sure the soft gray cloak belonged to him.
He led her through what looked like kitchen gardens, down a short pathway lined with polished rocks, past a fountain sculpted to look like naiads splashing about, to a hawthorn gate set in a stone wall overgrown with ivy. While everything else bore a light dusting of snow that crunched underfoot, the ivy was as green as summer. Nuada touched the door and murmured, "Oscailte." There was a soft click. The door swung open.
Nuada took the basket and said to the Butchers, "My father won't protest a single wall between us. Remain out here until we have finished our business." Ushering Dylan inside, he quickly shut the door on the royal guards' protests, leaving them standing in the snow. Thanks to the enchantments on the door, the Butchers couldn't get in. Only he, Nuala, and Balor could enter this particular garden without an escort.
He turned to study Dylan's expression - the wonder in her eyes and the pleasure on her face as she surveyed their surroundings. Nuada asked his lady softly, "What do you think?"
"Oh," she breathed. "Nuada, look at all the roses."
They were everywhere, blooming in riotous abundance and filling the air - which was suddenly warm - with the heady perfume. Peach, cream and yellow roses climbed halfway up the walls. Roses from deep mauve to a pink so pale it was nearly white bloomed from at least a dozen trees. Whereas everything beyond the stone walls was iced with winter, everything within this garden was vibrant and green and full of life. Sweet-grass spread across the ground in a soft green carpet. Several large stones covered in moss and a couple fallen trees made comfortable seats. The trilling song of a robin chirped from one of the rose trees.
A fountain, sculpted into the shape of three beautiful maidens petting a small dragon, burbled musically in a corner. Lilies of pale pink, cream, and pearly white floated on the surface of the water. Beside the fountain was a low, polished wooden bench carved with intricate Celtic knotwork in the shapes of trees. The rose tree that shaded the bench from the pale rays of the sun glinted in the morning light; its branches looked like burnished copper, its leaves were yellow gold, and its blooms seemed to be fashioned of hammered silver.
"It's beautiful." She caught one of the golden leaves fluttering from the branches. It shone in the dappled sunlight like real gold, but was as soft as a fresh spring leaf. Faerie magic. "It's absolutely beautiful."
Nuada set the basket down on a moss-covered stone beside the wooden bench and took Dylan's hand, lacing his fingers through hers.
"This was my mother's garden." At her startled look, he smiled. "This place is private. Sacred. My father... never comes here. Too painful, he says. But he enchanted it for my sister and I long ago, so the roses would always bloom. This tree was my mother's favorite; it's not native to Bethmoora. It comes from Cíocal, my mother's homeland." He pressed his palm to the trunk. "I've fallen out of this tree more times than I can remember."
She reached up and laid her hand against his cheek. "I'm honored that you would bring me here."
He turned his face into her palm and pressed a kiss there. Then he gestured to the bench. "Come; sit. We'll eat."
Over a meal of russet-red winter apples, honey-glazed breakfast rolls, sweet raspberries, blueberry muffins, and honey-sweetened milk, Nuada finally told her the gist of what his father had said to him the night before. He left out the argument over the Golden Army, but kept in his father's suspicions of treason. He let spill the poison of his father's words that had festered inside him all night. When he'd finished the recitation, Dylan nibbled a muffin. Sighed.
"Have I mentioned your dad doesn't deserve you?" She asked after a long silence. "Treason. What a crock. As if you would ever... he doesn't realize how lucky he is to have you for a son. It's been my experience," Dylan added, catching his eye, "that most parents don't appreciate how wonderful their children are until they lose them. But that's the parents' mistake, not the child's."
Nuada made a noncommittal noise. They finished the meal in strained silence broken only by the trill of birdsong.
Breakfast had been finished for some time and the silence had begun to press too hard when she asked softly, "Can we stay here awhile? Or are there things we need to do?"
He studied her face. How pale she seemed in the sunlight, the shadows bruising beneath her eyes. Fatigue etched across her face. "You didn't sleep well last night, did you? Forgive me; I should have paid closer attention." When she opened her mouth to protest, he added, "We can stay for a bit if you wish. Let's move to the grass."
The sweet-grass was soft as the bed she'd slept in last night, dry and springy. Nuada spread the cloak they'd brought so he and Dylan could sit on it. Knowing that one of them needed to do something to break the tension between them, the Elven warrior let his head rest lightly on Dylan's shoulder. She tensed, then relaxed.
"Were your rooms to your liking?"
"Oh, yes, they're lovely. Although," she added with a laugh, "there's a chess set in one of those rooms that probably costs a fortune. I know you want me to learn how to play, but I don't think I can practice with that. The pieces are amber and crystal - what if I break them?"
"Hmmm?" Nuada straightened. "Amber and crystal? I don't recall... oh!" He smiled. "Never fear, mo duinne. That set is mine. Break it if you wish, though you'll have a hard enough time doing so. The pieces are Bethmooran and mortal diamond. Nigh unbreakable by human hands."
Her mouth dropped open. "Diamond? Who has a diamond chess set? That's ridiculous. That's like... that's like... um..." She floundered a moment. "Wearing boxers made of Egyptian cotton. Or silk-lace underwear. Who wears silk-lace underwear?"
Nuada offered a sardonic look. "Forgive me, mo duinne, was that a serious question?"
She glared at him. "Do you have a serious answer?" The prince merely arched an eyebrow. Dylan's mouth twitched. "Oh, shut up, Mr. Elven Casanova."
"I said nothing." When she flicked a glance at him, the corner of his mouth quirked. She couldn't help but laugh.
After a moment, Dylan stretched out on her back with her hands cradling her head so she could look up at the strangely summery-blue patch of sky directly above the garden. How was that even possible? How could there be just this one small patch of summer in the middle of so much winter? Magic, of course. She'd never grow tired of its wonders. Or less wary of its dangers.
"What happens now?" She asked in the silence that had descended over them again, this one more companionable than the last.
"I play the obedient son. Attend my father's council meetings. Pretend I don't wish to slam my head against the nearest wall when the bureaucrats open their mouths." He was gratified when Dylan laughed again. "On a brighter note, I must also pay court to you, mo mhuire. Which means long walks, outings with at least some distance between us and those idiot guards, romantic dinners for two."
"You're only happy about that because it means you're not being followed so closely by the Goon Squad."
Nuada made a noise that might've been agreement if he hadn't been trying not to laugh. "I do enjoy spending time with you, though, Dylan," he assured her. "You make me feel... I cannot describe it. With you, I can simply be Nuada. Simply be a man. Not a prince, not a warrior, nothing but simply myself, and you accept it. That is a gift more precious than anything else you've given me."
She smiled up at him. He saw the sunlight, reflected off the golden leaves of the Fomorian tree, caressing her face. The fatigue was still evident there as well, but it wasn't quite so obvious. She closed her eyes. "I'm glad you feel that way. So... other than romantic dinners for two while being spied on by your dad's claymore-wielding guard dogs, what else are we going to have to deal with? When I was here last, Nuala mentioned something about an assessment?" She noticed the prince's sour expression and grimaced. "I'm scared now. I know what the assessment is, but what happens if I fail it? Can I fail it?"
"You most assuredly will, actually, which means while I'm forced to play the nobleman you will be forced to learn how to be a noble lady. Especially if my father truly means to force us to marry."
"So I'll have… princess lessons, basically?"
He nodded. "For all intents and purposes, yes. Etiquette, Bethmooran and other fae histories, deportment, riding-"
"What, like on horses?"
"Mm-hm. And dancing, of course-"
Dark lips curved into a wry smile. "Do not worry about that, of all things, mo duinne. I'm fairly certain I can convince my father to allow me to teach you the fine art of dancing." When she shot him a panicked look, he added in a velvet voice, "I assure you, darling, I'm quite skilled in many forms of dancing. My father..." Nuada trailed off for a moment, and his gaze grew far away and sad. Then he came back to himself. "My father once told me that seducing a woman ends in the bedchamber, but often begins in the ballroom."
She arched her back a little and tilted her head back to get a better look at him. He nearly swallowed his tongue at the picture she made, but Dylan didn't notice. "Is that what you're going to try and do at these dancing lessons, Your Highness? Seduce me?"
His smile was slow and lazy and edged with blatant male interest. "If you wish."
Dylan grinned. "My baser instincts say, 'I wish,' but my common sense says, 'No.' Sorry to disappoint you. Although, all things considered, if that's the extent of our immediate worries, I can't really find a reason to complain."
"And Crown Prince Zhenjin of Dilong may challenge me to a fight to the death for his sister's honor."
"Of course," he added, unruffled by her horrified shock, "I'll win such a duel. Even without my spear. And I can win without killing Zhenjin, thus avoiding war with Dilong. And he may not challenge me after all. We are friends. Or were, last we spoke. So that is nothing to worry over."
She rolled onto her side and propped her head on her hand. "A potential fight to the death over you refusing to marry a three-hundred-year-old Chinese-Elven princess and possibly starting a war between the faerie equivalents of Ireland and China if you kill the crown prince by accident is nothing to worry over?"
"Do you have faith in me as a warrior, Dylan?" Nuada asked. He pinned her with a stare of deep, fey gold. "Do you believe me to be, as you once said, 'the most amazing Elven warrior ever?'"
Without hesitation, his lady replied, "Yes."
"Then don't worry about Zhenjin. I will handle him. All will be well." He skimmed his knuckles along the thick scar on her cheek. "Now, I think you ought to go back to sleep for a time. You didn't rest well last night, and if my father happens to attempt to surprise us with a welcome-home banquet, you will need all your faculties about you." He absently fiddled with a curl that had fallen across her forehead. "Rest, mo duinne. I'll wake you when it's time to take you to church."
"Promise?" She mumbled, already seduced by the idea of curling up on Nuada's cloak in this wonderful garden and sleeping for a couple more hours. The cloak was ridiculously soft, and the sweet-grass beneath it surprisingly comfortable.
"Don't you trust me, then? The impertinence."
Dylan smiled, already drifting off before Nuada had finished speaking. The Elven warrior stretched out perpendicular to the drowsing mortal, most of his body on the soft, springy grass to leave Dylan the comfort of the cloak. Shifting, he reached out to clasp Dylan's hand. Her fingers immediately curled around his. An icy knot in his belly loosened, grew warm. The tension drained out of him. Surrounded by the scent of roses, his lady's hand in his, Nuada found himself drifting into a pleasant drowse.
Outside, the Butcher Guards grumbled, wondering whether the prince was making them wait because he was affronted by their very presence, or if he'd snuck out to this garden to tryst with his human tramp. Either way, they were counting the seconds until he came out so they could get out of the blasted snow.
Feral emerald eyes glittered from a ways down the path as they raked over the Butchers. Dierdre had seen Nuada disappearing with his filthy mortal whore into one of the king's private gardens. Icy fury frosted Dierdre's blood.
The prince should've been sporting with her, not playing with the human. Once the gancanaugh had the Silverlance under her power, once she'd addicted him to her sweet poison, she'd take her time killing the mortal. The disgusting creature would pay for daring to seduce the Elven prince right under Dierdre's nose. She would most assuredly pay.
Author's Note: all right, so here we are, and I'm totally late with this chapter, I know, I'm so sorry. Thing is, I wrote all of chapter 58 and 59, and then gave it to my beta, right? Well, she found humongous gargantuan gaping plotholes that basically made using either chapter impossible, and this was 2 days before I was planning on putting the chapters up to begin with. Blargh. Not her fault, my fault.
Now, onto our lovely review prompt!
1) So first question first - Balor and Nuada's conversation. What do we think? There's also a secret (the same secret from chapter 55) hinted at again in this conversation, and a new secret about Balor. Has anyone found it?
2) Nuada's punishment, house-arrest and NO SILVER LANCE! Gah! Reactions? Originally I was actually going to have Balor psychologically torture Nuada from sunset to sunrise (and it's winter, so that's like, 15 hours) but my beta was like, "Balor's not that crazy - yet." So thoughts on his punishment?
3) Oh, the strain of the situation is already getting to Nuada (as is the secret from chapter 55). Do you guys think I'm sadistic enough to break up our lovebirds? Thing is, I've noticed in books/movies and in real life, relationships are easier to maintain when it's just you and the other person (like Dylan and Nuada staying in the cottage all the time). Once outside influences start popping up, it becomes a lot harder, and fights/spats/whatever happen way more often. So... think they can handle it?
Concerning the Chapter Title: the chapter is called "Guileless Son" because a big component of this chapter is about loyalty and disloyalty, the "voices beneath" (doubts and suspicions and fears), and it reminded me a lot of the song "Mordred's Lullaby" by Heather Dale (which fanon has dictated to be Nuada's theme, basically). And the opening line of every verse starts with the phrase "Guileless son..." And the chorus ends with a chant of "Loyalty, loyalty, loyalty, loyalty..."
References Made in This Chapter:
- Nuada put the crack in Balor's desk in chapter 48.
- "Better to burn than fade" is a line from the novelization of the film. In the film, this line is replaced with "We will not fade."
- The thing about Nuada "allowing" the Army to do things and Balor being responsible for the slaughter is based on something I read on the Nuada wikia, that one of the big bones of contention between them about the Army was that Nuada thought he could've commanded it more effectively than Balor did.
- We see both Claiomh Solais, the Sword of Victory, and Sleá Bua, the Spear of Light in chapter 12. Both the Sword of Victory (also called the Sword of Light and the Sword of Nuada) and the Spear of Light (also called the Spear of Lugh) are two of the Four Sacred Treasures of the Tuatha de in Irish myth. Nuada mentions the other two to Dylan.
- The ragdoll concept was first created by WhenNightmaresWalked for one of her amazing word prompts, and she gave me permission to play with it. She came up with the "friend" doll, and I came up with the "protector" doll.
- The dipsa serpent's name is French because the dipsa come from the Medieval Bestiary, which was compiled by English and French "scholars" in medieval times, and so he'd either have a British-sounding or French name. I didn't have an English fae kingdom yet, but I've got a French one (Gevaudan), so I made him French.
- The sage bit of advice about seduction that Balor gave Nuada is a paraphrase from Daughter of the Blood by Anne Bishop.
- Dylan told Nuada he was the most amazing Elven warrior ever in chapter 28.