"Your highness! We have found the Princess!"
King Davor turned as two mer-guards entered the chamber.
"Well?" He prompted, his amber eyes flashing. "Where is she?"
The second guard flexed his tail up behind him and stretched his arms toward it, bending his head forward in a gesture of respect. "My liege, Princess Ylaine requested that we escort her to her royal chambers."
"Her royal chambers?" Davor was so furious, his tail went as stiff as a pike's. "The Royal Undersea Convention is gathering, and my daughter thinks she can just go to her room?"
Neither guard met his gaze; they were too busy bowing mer-fashion. With a twist of his tail, the irate king exploded out of the chamber's opening and toward a round coral colony on the other side of the palace.
Ylaine drifted with the current in the middle of the space. Her violet hair hung in a purple cloud around her face.
Davor paused to cool his fury before entering.
"Ylaine?" He called softly.
"I am here, father," she answered as he swam inside.
"My dear, are you ready for the Convention?"
Ylaine sighed and swam froward, letting the water pressure carry her tresses aside to expose her blue-skinned face. She turned the mournful aquamarine eyes upon her father. "Not today, please, Father. I do not feel well."
Davor's throat-gills snapped impatiently. "Ylaine, please; just once, that's all I ask."
Ylaine snapped her gills too, though considerably a smaller noise than her father made. "That is just what you've said every time, father."
"Ylaine," Davor continued evenly, "You know I like to hear you sing."
Ylaine pressed her lips in a smile. "Then why don't you listen, father?"
"Such a gift as yours is only fitting for an event like this one."
"I am quite sure the fairy did not give it to me to be used in such a manner."
"I told you," Ylaine twisted so her hair concealed her face again. "I'm not well. I need to rest."
Davor folded his muscled arms across his smooth torso. "This wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that I'm sure the guards found you trying to slip through the boundaries in a school of barracuda, would it?"
A single flicker of the aqua eye among the purple haze confirmed his suspicion.
"I just wanted to see the surface, just once!" she complained.
"Ylaine, you know that this cannot be—"
"Oh yes, because humans are careless and cruel and they'd as soon chop off my tail as look at me!"
"Nayidia says that it used to be a tradition for all merfolk who so desire to swim to the surface at the Great Moon Rising." She babbled without looking at him. "Nearly three hundred Great Moons have passed, and never have I seen another mermaid pass your precious boundary! We have delved deeper into the seabed, when we might be rising up, and on!"
"Enough!" Davor ordered. “You know those boundaries are placed there for your protection.”
“Protection from what?” Ylaine demanded. “You know me, father; I would never willfully place myself in danger. You have taught me to pay attention to my surroundings—“
“It is the humans, Ylaine,” Davor began.
Ylaine twisted away from him and began swimming around the room, picking ropes of seaweed and placing them in her hair. “Oh yes, father,” she grumbled. “Tell me again how evil the humans are, how dangerous are their crafts in which they sit, waiting for the odd flash of fish-scales to strike with their harpoons. You know,” she stopped and confronted her father as her hair splayed out around her face, “I am sure the human world has changed since the fairies left. I bet if you went up and saw for yourself, no harm would come to you, and you’d call off this wretched vendetta you have created for yourself!” She sat before the obsidian mirror and turned her back to her father.
"Please, Ylaine," Davor placed his hands over his daughter's shoulders. Plucking a white starfish from the side of the obsidian, he folded his daughter's hair back from her face and fastened it there with the star. Still, she kept her eyes down. He tipped her chin up.
"You're beautiful and I love you," he murmured.
Finally, Ylaine met his gaze. "Love me, and conduct the conference using your own words to convince the merfolk that your plan is worthwhile.”
“You know that is impossible; I cannot convince them of something no one has confirmed.”
“Then perhaps war against the humans is not such a good plan after all.”
“They must be stopped,” said Davor, handing his daughter a rope of seaweed with which to tie her hair.
Reluctantly, Ylaine accepted it and began binding her wild tresses into a long braid that hung behind her head. This she wound around itself in a large knot, which she held in place with another sea star. She paused to watch her reflection, staring at her father’s reflection pointedly.
“What are they doing, that they must cease? Are their divers reaching lower and lower depths? What happened to trading with them, as in the ancient days?”
Davor hesitated; it is true, there was once a time when fairies and merfolk traded freely with the humans, surfacing regularly to barter rare and fascinating items from the seabed.
“Those days are over,” Davor said slowly. “Remember what happened to your mother?”
“Only what you have told me,” Ylaine replied quietly, giving her father a mournful glance. “But father,” she rejoined in earnest, “that was one boat, that was one time—“
“I have lost one love,” Davor said, embracing his daughter. “I will not lose another. I love you, My Princess.” He held her for a moment, and nodded to the guard that respectfully appeared at the entrance overhead.
“It is time,” he said, pulling away and looking at his daughter. She was growing more and more beautiful every day. King Davor made his request one last time.
“Will you do this for me, daughter? For your mother?”
Ylaine sighed, her gills popping in her throat as they flexed. “Very well, Father.”
Davor nodded and handed her the golden cowrie shell that marked her as royalty. “Your mother would be proud to see the gift she witnessed put to such a noble use,” he told her.
Behind his back, Ylaine felt the shell bounce against her neck as she muttered, “No, she wouldn’t father. Not this… not at all.”
Within the palace, a dark-haired young man with sharp features crouched in the shadows, curled up as small as he could make his lanky frame. He waited, counting silently to himself.
“Five… four… three… two… one!” He slipped out just as the guards were changing. Hugging the wall and keeping well below any windows, the grey-clad young man crept toward his goal. One more corner, one more hallway—
At last! The mischievous rogue squeezed into an alcove and surveyed his quarry: a fresh berry tart on the windowsill. He would have to slip past the pastry chef, the cook, the cellar-maid, the baker, and the footmen traipsing in and out of the kitchen as they readied luncheon for His Majesty—
“Your Highness!” The cry hurt his pride almost as much as the fierce grip hurt his ear.
“Aww, Giles!” he whined, gripping the servant’s wrist in a vain attempt at getting him to relax his grip.
Giles never relented. “Prince Nathan, what do you think you’re doing?” His eyes immediately went for the tart. “Devising plans of insubordination, I see. And tell me, Prince—would it really have tasted as sweet to gulp it down in the last few minutes before luncheon so that you would not get caught, or to wait until you had finished your meal, at which time you would be able to call for it and consume at your leisure?” Giles laughed and hauled the prince ignominiously out to the hallway. Only then did he release him.
“Ow, Giles,” Nathan rubbed his tender lobe. “I could have you whipped for that, you know.”
“I am fulfilling the duties laid down by your father, of looking after you, Prince,” Giles replied soberly. He snorted, “Besides, if you whipped everyone who dared speak against you, Prince, what sort of king would that make you?”
“One with less bruises, that is certain,” Nathan muttered. “Now go and fetch my boots!”
Giles glanced at his stocking feet and shook his head. “Ah, nay, My Prince. You and I both will return to your chambers. It would not do to stuff those sorry, dusty scraps into your nice clean boots that I’ve just shined, now would it?”
Nathan groaned and followed Giles back to his room.
In the Great Hall, King Theodore pored over the sheaf of documents his advisors had delivered to his desk. A blanket of melancholy settled over his brain and fairly muddled the propositions for new taxes and laws, of reports on the royal treasury and the state of the kingdom. Pushing them aside, he picked up the map that outlined the various farms in the kingdom, and the amount of fertile ground that was used for planting, with small sections in each farm set aside for the royal storehouses. Theodore pulled at his thinning grey beard as his sagging, wrinkled forehead creased in bewildered concern. He would have to get the Royal Archivist to bring him the last map of such kind, but he could have sworn the areas left for the farmers and their families grew smaller and smaller each year, as were the merchandise reports from the marketplace. Meanwhile, the census seemed to increase for a few years, and then drop sharply—where did people go, anymore? King Theodore set aside his papers and rubbed his aching head. He could tighten his belt to one-course meals during the day—but what about Nathan? The Prince was a growing boy, and he ought to have all the sustenance he required.
He returned to the petition from his advisors.
“The coffers are low,” they complained. “And Overcliff has little hope of ever recovering from the last bad harvest. Trade has suffered since the banishment of the fairies, Milord; perhaps we might consider rescinding the order?”
King Theodore’s face hardened. The meeting had ended there; he was too overcome to utter another sound, and he had sent them all out of the chamber as fast as their plump and doddering legs could carry them. Welcome the fairies back? After what they had done to incur their banishment? By no means!
The king’s chin trembled and he covered his mouth as the memory of his beloved wife washed over him yet again. Queen Theresa, with her shining smile and those star-like eyes she passed on to her son! King Theodore had never been stronger than with his beloved wife at his side, whispering her wise words in his ear when the shouting advisors would poison his mind with their suggestions of taxation and reaping the best from the people merely because he was king and they could not gainsay the king’s word. Trade with the fairies had benefited the kingdom, surely; but then a mysterious plague came at the same time as a certain delegation of the Fae, and many citizens fell ill with little hope of recovery—including the queen. The king had first begged their assistance, but when the disease escalated beyond even the fairies’ skill, he forthwith banished all Fae and forbid any more trade. Since that day, more than twenty years ago, King Theodore was faced in his advancing age with the prospect of leading the kingdom alone, with no one to speak boldly in his support. He had entrusted the tutelage of his young son to a worthy servant named Giles, in the hopes that young Nathan would eventually grow as wise as his mother had been—but that day had not come yet. Still, King Theodore hoped.
The great bell sounded, announcing that all was in readiness for the midday meal. King Theodore smiled and pushed aside his papers as Prince Nathan came into the room, booted, laughing, and fairly exuding life and vitality. Close on his heels followed his faithful valet, Giles.
“Ah, my son!” Theodore gushed, as Nathan took his seat at the right-hand corner of the table nearest his father. The foot-servants entered, placing several dishes before the Prince, and a few before the king.
Nathan didn’t seem to notice, and dug into the repast with a relish.
“Have you had a good day today, Nathan?” King Theodore asked, picking slowly over his simple meal of roasted meat and vegetables.
Nathan paused in his consumption of an entire roast hen and shrugged. “Well enough, if Giles would not insist on dragging me off to practice sparring or learn geogramy and tripe like that. But I was able to catch Tom this morning on his way to university.” Nathan grabbed a handful of grapes from the platter in front of him and began decimating the cluster, still talking all the while. “I think we’re going to go hunting once he finishes his studies this afternoon.”
Theodore nodded, grinning at his energetic son. “A worthy pastime, indeed!” he said. “I am sure Giles will be of great assistance; perhaps you may bag your dinner!”
“Giles?” Nathan glanced at his silent valet and shrugged. “No, I don’t think I’d want him around. He might make me chart the circumberance of the forest or something boring like that. If it’s all the same, I think Tom will do just fine.”
“What about the village boy in your patronage? What was his name?”
Nathan paused and considered very hard. “Oh yes, the one whose mother needed money to send him to school, so I’ve been sending regular sums to them? Hmph, I cannot remember! Giles, do you know?”
Giles kept his expression neutral as he replied, “I believe the young lad’s name was Simon, your highness.”
“That’s it, Simon! How old must he be now, you think?”
“If I recall, highness, he is but five years your junior.”
“You don’t say!” Nathan fiddled with the bones on his plate as he mulled over the plan. “I bet it would be very kingly of me to invite a layperson such as Simon along on a hunting trip, wouldn’t it, father?”
“Of course,” said King Theodore. “A king ought to be a man who is willing to associate with his people. Go to, my son!”
“Thanks, father!” Nathan sprang up from the table to receive his friend Tom and send for the boy Simon.
Theodore laid down his napkin and moved away from the table to allow the servants to clear the dishes. Giles remained where he was until Theodore beckoned him to join him at the window.
"I worry about him, Giles," said Theodore heavily. "I am nearing the end of my reign, and he seems to have no interest in kingly things."
"Aye, Milord," agreed Giles, "if it was a lady distracting him that would be one thing, but Nathan's diversion seems to center on himself."
Theodore's face folded on itself as he pondered this. He wagged his head. "No, I do not think romance is necessary for a King. I would that he showed a little more interest in matters of the kingdom." He chuckled. "My mind is not as spry as it once was, and yet my duties do not get any simpler."
The valet pressed his lips. "If I may speak freely, sire," he began slowly.
Theodore nodded, watching his son ride out of the courtyard flanked by his friends. "I will hear it, Giles. I always have."
Giles chose his words carefully. "If you were to invite your son to these council meetings, or to assign him some small part of kingly duties, just to give him some impression of what will be expected of him—"
Theodore turned away from the window and began pacing back to the pile of documents at the table. "No, no; I am old, yes, but Nathan is still young—what, only just past a score, is he?"
"A score and five, I think, my lord."
"Ah me! Time is a sprightly dame, is she not? But, be that as it may, I think the Prince shall have time enough to settle down; these things can wait till he has the mind for them. If there is one thing I have learned, Giles, it is that one's family is more valuable than one's rank. Let the boy have his play. He'll be a man soon enough."