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"The gown she received was a peacock-blue brocade trimmed in gold...."
Finally, they helped her stand and walk out into the hallway where Prince Nathan was waiting. As much as she had been squeezed, pushed, jerked, and pinched by all these new things, Ylaine actually found that she could relax into the tiny steps the dress restricted her to, as it made her feel more sure of her footing instead of ready to fall over.
That moment when Prince Nathan turned and saw her all cleaned and human-looking was a sight Ylaine knew she would treasure for the rest of her life.
He grinned, but it wasn't the grin of amusement over her embarrassment. Ylaine wondered if it wasn't love in his eyes when he looked at her. He offered his arm as he had done in the marketplace, but this time Ylaine slipped her arm through his, the right way.
He laughed, "They must have some strange customs on the mainland, but you are learning ours quickly enough. My father awaits us in the Great Hall."
A fresh wave of apprehension washed over Ylaine as Nathan led her to the massive double-doors flanked by guards. How on earth was she going to impress the King with the horrible stutter she could never be rid of? Nathan ignoring the impediment was fortunate enough; Ylaine doubted she could have the same luck twice.
King Theodore sat at the head of the table. The smile he bestowed on his son faltered when he spotted the strange—albeit beautiful—girl behind him.
"Father," Nathan announced, bringing Ylaine forward, "I've found her."
"Found whom?" Theodore frowned in puzzlement. "My son, the table is laid, and you bring a guest?"
Nathan signaled a waiting footman. "Bring another place. She will dine with us."
Ylaine hesitated there at Nathan's side. She knew that the ruler of a kingdom deserved a demonstration of respect—but she had no idea how humans bowed. As a mermaid she would straighten her body, thrust her arms back and flutter her tail; as a human, her body was already straight, and she had no tail. On impulse, Ylaine bent her head toward the King and bent her body into a half-crouch, throwing one arm back and bending the other in front of her as she had watched Nathan do. She held this position till her legs began to wobble, then stood.
The King and the Prince just stared at her. Ylaine saw a smile play across Giles' mouth.
King Theodore blinked. "What is your name, Lass?"
Ylaine could feel her tongue seize up; her mind fairly screamed the answer but her mouth would not move.
Nathan answered for her. "Her name is Illeinina—and she was the one who saved me from drowning two days ago."
Theodore started and nearly fumbled his fork. "Really? Hm, ah, yes.... Indeed; well, Lady Illeinina, you have the kingdom's profoundest gratitude. Please do sit and join us."
Nathan grinned at her as she sat before the plate.
"I hope you like it," he said, "being from a sea town and all."
Ylaine stared at the dish before her: a sea bass, filleted and roasted, still crackling from its brief respite in the castle ovens. Not that she had not consumed fish before; the big, flat tunas and the sleek eels were every bit as much a food source to the mer folk as cattle and fowl were to humans.
What puzzled her immensely was how to go about using the strange-shaped utensils laid all around her plate. All her life she had never used anything other than the fine-tipped whalebone skewers to either pinch or stab the food. These strange shapes—several with many stabbing points, one with a flat, smooth edge, and another that looked like a small sword—made the very act of eating seem like a complicated maneuver. Ylaine picked up the pronged utensil, watching Nathan's hands carefully out of the corner of her eye to see how it was used.
The King and Prince, for their part, did not notice their guest's predicament, instead conversing amongst themselves.
"I hope the arrival of this girl has not made you neglect the instructions I gave you, Nathan."
"Not a bit, Father! Giles still makes me sit while he throws figures at my head like knives at a target!"
"Oh? Then what have you learned about the nation of Crossway?"
"If we are going to establish a treaty, son, I want you to know all about it."
"No, no; I remember. It's just..." Involuntarily, his gaze betrayed his thoughts and wandered to the girl beside him.
"Well?" Theodore recalled him to reality.
"Oh, er," Nathan stammered as both Giles and the King watched him from either side, "I know that the principal export from Crossway is fish and, um... Coral?"
"I believe the pearls are that kingdom's greatest treasure, but we will let that stand. Who rules Crossway?"
Theodore rubbed his brow. "Her name is Queen Devaine."
Theodore cast a concerned glance in the direction of Giles. "I see that you have not been giving this kingdom the attention it deserves. Perhaps when the Queen arrives tomorrow I may have to—"
"No father!" Nathan begged. "I'll do better, I promise! It's just that, today, with Illeinina and all—"
"Is she too much of a distraction for you, Nathan?"
Ylaine could not restrain a hazarded glance; would she be sent away for his sake, so soon?
"No she is not," Nathan affirmed, even going so far as to take Ylaine's hand and clasp it reassuringly. "I will learn everything by tomorrow evening."
King Theodore snorted. "Hmph! See that you do."
Nothing more was said during the meal, but as they parted ways to retire for the night, Nathan put his arms around Ylaine's shoulders. She felt his warmth seem to radiate from his core; she had never felt such a thing in the water.
"Now that I've found you, I will never send you away, Illeinina," he whispered in her ear, his breath pulsing against her skin. "I promise."