The Dance of Water and Air
Antonia Aquilante © 2018
All Rights Reserved
Edmund swam, long limbs slicing through the clear, warm water. His mind quieted in the repetitive motion, in the weightlessness and the comfort of being surrounded by his Element. Everything washed away, leaving him calm and relaxed, the only time he ever was lately.
If only he could stay there.
He imagined it for a moment. Spending his life swimming and sailing. All his time in the soothing embrace of the water, or at the shore or bank, feeling Water’s power, learning to use its magic. It was a lovely dream. A lovely, impossible dream. With that thought, tension—the tension his morning swim had briefly dispelled—came flooding back. He stopped swimming and flipped onto his back, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath before letting it out in a long sigh.
The sigh had barely left him when he heard the scrape of a shoe against stone. He bit back another sigh and flipped over again to straighten and tread water in the center of the large pool. His secretary stood on the tiled terrace. Peregrine knew better than anyone that this time was Edmund’s and wouldn’t disturb him unless it was urgent. Disaster or grave injury were top of the list.
“Good morning, Highness.” Peregrine would never call him by name when someone else might hear, and Edmund would never try to convince him otherwise. Edmund was far too aware of the dictates of his own position. And far too grateful to have found a friend in Peregrine to quibble overly about how they had to behave in public. “I apologize for disturbing you, sir, but the king has called for you.”
A summons from Father certainly counted as a valid reason to disturb him, especially with the rising tensions between Thalassa and their neighbor, Tycen. It seemed Edmund would be cutting his swim short this morning. He struck out for the terrace where Peregrine waited, swimming with steady but unhurried strokes. He wouldn’t dawdle, but if there had been reason to rush, Peregrine would have said.
Soon enough, he reached the terrace and pulled himself up to sit on the edge. Peregrine handed him a towel. He wiped his face first and stood to strip off his soaking wet swim pants and dry the rest of him. Peregrine wouldn’t care about Edmund’s nudity, and he didn’t worry that someone else would come upon them. The pool he chose for his swims wasn’t the largest of the many on the palace grounds, but it was the most private. The terrace they stood on was the only one that connected to the palace, and it was shaded from view. The rest of the area was screened with trees and shrubbery. The smaller terraces on the side opposite them were even more secluded. He’d spent much time in the pool, which was fed by the same underground spring as the rest of the palace waterways, and on the terraces over the years.
Once Edmund was dry, Peregrine handed him the robe he’d left hanging over the back of a chair when he’d arrived. He’d also left a book there—he’d been far too optimistic about his time when he came down here, apparently. He thanked Peregrine and shrugged into the blue-green silk. It was new, something he hadn’t really needed, but he liked the color against his brown skin and the feel of the smooth, cool silk.
“Any idea what my father needs?” Edmund stepped into his sandals and picked up his book from the table.
He raised his eyebrow at Peregrine in surprise. Edmund could always rely on Peregrine for more information than seemed possible about everyone from the maids to the king. He’d long since gotten over any misgivings about Peregrine’s seeming omniscience and begun to rely on it. For Peregrine not to have an inkling of what was brewing… Odd. And slightly disturbing.
“I guess we’ll find out.”
Not immediately, of course. A summons through official channels called for more formality. Edmund couldn’t appear in the king’s presence in nothing but a thin robe and sandals. Peregrine kept pace as Edmund walked to his rooms, informing him of other court news and gossip that he might find interesting or useful as they walked.
Edmund’s rooms were a floor up from the garden pool. A guard stationed near the door jumped to open it for Edmund as he approached. He nodded but didn’t slow as he sailed through the door, Peregrine at his heels. His sandals made soft tapping sounds on the green and white tile of the entryway. His sitting room opened up in front of him, curtains fluttering in the breeze blowing in off the ocean below. He had no time to relax there or even to eat the breakfast that was sure to be laid out in the dining room. Instead, he turned left, taking the short hallway leading to his bedchamber, dressing room, and bathing room.
He went directly to the bathing room. Wide windows let in sunlight over the large tub, empty because he usually bathed after breakfast. There was no time to fill it, let alone soak. He settled for rinsing the salt from his skin with water from the basin and briskly rubbed a towel over his shoulder-length hair. Having it drip all over his clothing while he met with Father just wouldn’t do. When he’d squeezed as much of the water from it as he could, he left the towel and went to the dressing room.
Peregrine was there, laying out clothes.
“That isn’t your job,” Edmund said.
“I can select my own clothing.”
“I’m aware of that as well. Put them on anyway.”
Edmund laughed and did as he was told. Peregrine was only saving him time and knew what would be appropriate for him to wear, considering the meeting with Father and the day ahead. He pulled on undergarments and slim gray pants and dropped a sleeveless white shirt over his head. Peregrine held out a dark teal jacket for him, helping him shrug into the embroidered silk. Edmund murmured his thanks and fastened the jacket over his chest, fingers working quickly over the row of little silver buttons. When he was finished, he stepped into shoes and fastened the silver and aquamarine drop earrings Peregrine had just pulled from their box into his ears. It was the only jewelry Peregrine had chosen, and as he looked in the mirror, Edmund had to admit he was probably right in that. The clothing didn’t need more.
“Thank you,” Edmund said.
“My pleasure, Edmund.”
“Perhaps I should have you dress me every day. You have an eye for it. Much better than anyone else. Do you think you’d prefer it to being my secretary?”
Peregrine sent a stern frown at Edmund. “Funny.”
It was, for any number of reasons. Only one being that Peregrine was frighteningly efficient in his present position and far too good at it to do anything else. In fact, he was far too skilled to be anything except a royal secretary, and it was Edmund’s good fortune to have him.
“Shall we?” Peregrine didn’t mention that Edmund shouldn’t keep Father waiting, but he didn’t have to.
“Yes. Catch me up on any changes to my schedule as we walk.”
Peregrine did so, barely consulting his notebook. Edmund listened carefully as they left his rooms and strode through the palace corridors. His own wing, reserved for the rooms of the royal children, was quiet as it was only occupied by him and Kerenza. His sister would still be abed—she preferred to rise late when she had the opportunity—and he had no appointments that might bring anyone to his office until later in the day. When they passed out of the wing, the entrance marked by a three-tiered fountain decorated in mosaics of blue and green tiles, the corridors became more populated. But everyone gave way for the prince and his secretary, bowing as Edmund passed them.
Father’s office was near the council chambers and other administrative offices in the main block of the palace. He worked sometimes in the small private library attached to his rooms, but all his official meetings took place here. If Edmund had any doubt that today’s summons was serious and formal, it would have been dispelled by the location of the meeting.
Peregrine knocked when they arrived, and a moment later, the door was opened by Father’s secretary, who bowed and stepped aside. Edmund bowed slightly as soon as he entered the room, then walked closer to Father’s desk. Peregrine remained back near the closed door. Father looked up from the papers he was examining to study Edmund with a keen eye. Edmund was sure Father was cataloging every detail of his appearance from his attire to his still damp hair.
Father was dressed formally, as Edmund would expect. His jacket was green, heavily embroidered in gold and white, the color vivid against his dark skin. The circlet of his rank sat on his head amid black curls now streaked with gray. Edmund had not worn his own circlet, deeming it unnecessary for the day he had planned; he hoped he wouldn’t regret that decision. The set of Father’s features caused Edmund’s stomach to churn unpleasantly.
“You called for me, Father?”
“Yes. Come sit down. I need to speak with you.” The seriousness of his tone did nothing to alleviate Edmund’s sudden concern.
Edmund took the chair across from Father’s desk, hoping he properly concealed his anxiety. He’d been trained all his life to mask every emotion, so he’d best be able to. He looked at Father and waited for him to speak.
“As you know, we’ve been pursuing an alliance with Aither,” Father said.
And, of course, Edmund did know, though he hadn’t been involved in the negotiations. Aither sat at their western border. Theirs was generally a friendly border to begin with, trade flowing freely between the two countries, but Father and his council had hoped that the looming threat of Tycen’s aggression might worry Aither’s young queen as much as it had them and would tempt her into an alliance. Edmund hadn’t been informed about the state of the negotiations in some time. Had they gone horribly wrong?
“We’ve come to an agreement with Queen Hollis.”
“You—” Edmund stopped. He’d been so sure Father was going to say just the opposite that he couldn’t believe what he’d heard. “That’s wonderful, Father. Did the final agreement go as you’d hoped?”
“We got what we needed from it.”
“Good.” And yet the relief Edmund should’ve been feeling didn’t come. Father didn’t look as if he’d just concluded a successful negotiation, didn’t look as if he was pleased by the outcome. Or…no, not as if he was displeased, but too serious. “Is something wrong?”
“Not at all. However, the promises of increased trade and mutual protection were not enough on their own to secure the alliance we needed.”
Edmund wasn’t surprised, though he hadn’t been privy to the particulars of what Father wanted, aside from Aither standing with them should Tycen press their aggression. “What did they ask for?”
“Queen Hollis and her advisors required more assurance of our compliance, and truth be told, I wasn’t upset to have more of theirs. They’re Air wielders, so they’re different from us, but Water and Air are compatible. Even if I would have preferred an alliance with no deeper entanglements.”
“Father?” A rush of cold spread through Edmund’s veins.
“You and Queen Hollis will wed with the expectation of a child being born within two years. The alliance will be secured by blood and all the stronger for it.”
Edmund wasn’t stupid or naive; he knew the best way to seal an alliance such as this one was with a marriage and a child. But, somehow, he hadn’t consciously thought about it. Perhaps he hadn’t wanted to because if he’d thought about it, he’d have to accept that the marriage would be his.
“Are you all right?” Peregrine hovered for a moment before sitting beside Edmund on the couch.
“I’ll have to be, won’t I?” After Father had explained the terms and told Edmund to prepare to travel to Aither within the week, Edmund had silently returned to his rooms, Peregrine trailing behind him. “I have my duty.”
“I hate that it has to come before your own well-being.” The vehemence in Peregrine’s voice kindled some warmth within Edmund, where there had only been numbness.
“I’m all there is. With Gareth…gone, I’m all Father had to bargain with. Unless Queen Hollis put forth a different member of her family for Kerenza.” Not that he wished an alliance marriage on Kerenza. Arranged marriages had been the norm in their family for generations—all the more reason that he should have prepared for this moment. Nevertheless, Kerenza was young yet, and he wouldn’t push his responsibilities to Thalassa on her shoulders.
“I almost wonder why she didn’t. Or why they didn’t put forth Prince Arden for you,” Peregrine mused. Edmund had asked Father why it would be her instead of Prince Arden—if Edmund married Aither’s prince, he would be able to stay in Thalassa, at least—but apparently Aither insisted he wed their queen. Peregrine continued, “She’s young, and while an alliance is in the cards for her, she can’t know if the tides will change and something more important come along. Unless they’re feeling the threat from Tycen as keenly as we are.”
He hadn’t thought about it, and while they and Aither weren’t enemies by any means, Aither was insular enough that information wasn’t widely disseminated from its court. Queen Hollis had been on the throne only six months, after the sudden death of her father. There had been rumors at the time that he’d been assassinated, but no one had been able to confirm them. “Perhaps they are. The whole thing is moot anyway. The papers have been signed. It’s done.”
“And still, I wish it didn’t have to be you.” Peregrine laid a hand on Edmund’s arm, the weight of it warm and comforting. “At least you get some time there before the wedding. Perhaps you can get to know her.”
“Come to love her beforehand?” He swallowed back a bitter, sad laugh. Peregrine was the only one who knew about Edmund’s oddity. For a long time—as everyone else his age tittered over boys and girls, flirting and stealing kisses, and he had no interest in any of it—he’d thought he was strange and broken beyond repair. He’d faked what he could, avoided everything else. And then there had been Lior, first a tutor then a good friend, then much more. The attraction that followed his feelings for Lior had been stunning, and though the relationship couldn’t last, Edmund carried with him fond memories and some relief. He could want someone; he could be as giddy and infatuated as anyone else.
Even if it hadn’t happened since.
But now all he could do was dread a wedding night and the nights that followed as they tried to conceive an heir within the time required. Father’s concern was the alliance, and for that he would settle for marrying his son to someone with an Air Affinity, as it was compatible with Water and brought about the desired outcome. Edmund had never told Father of his worries about himself, and it wouldn’t matter if he had. Edmund’s duty was to his king and country; he’d been raised to put that duty first, would do so as prince and later king. Only…he wasn’t sure he could manage this, knew he didn’t want to. No wonder he hadn’t acknowledged what was likely to happen.
Peregrine’s hand tightened on his arm. “What will you do?”
“What can I do? I’ll travel to Aither and meet my intended. The alliance is the important part. If Tycen strikes at us, we’ll be stronger for it.” The safety of his people was the important thing. “Who knows? Perhaps I will fall in love with her before the wedding.”
Peregrine had to hear the lack of optimism in his words. “Whatever happens, I’ll be there with you, my friend.”
“Are you sure about this? Are you absolutely sure it’s the best way?”
“Yes. I’ve considered all the options. The council has too, if you trust them more than you do me.”
Arden turned from the window at the snap in his sister’s tone. “Hollis. You know I trust your judgment, and you know I support you as my sister and my queen. I just want to make certain this is what you really want. You’re arranging a marriage for yourself with someone you’ve never met.”
Hollis’s voice lashed out, sharper than before. “What I really want? Of course it isn’t. I don’t want to marry a man I’ve never met and be required to have his child to secure an alliance. I don’t want to have to constantly be on my guard, hoping that once I’m married to him and carrying his child, he won’t try to undermine my rule. I don’t want any of that, but it’s what I have to do. For Aither.”
Arden opened his mouth and closed it again as he tried to figure out what to say. Hollis was standing behind her desk—the desk that, until half a year ago, had belonged to their father—glaring at Arden. Her green eyes, twins of Arden’s own, were narrowed. That, along with their height, was the only resemblance between them. Hollis’s hair was long, golden, and wavy, the mass of it pulled up and back in complicated braids and left to rain down her back. She’d been meeting with her council all morning and was dressed for it in a blue gown with full sweeping skirts.
Arden had not been at the meeting. As such, he’d been dressed for a day with his books. “I didn’t mean that. I only worry for you. If you believe this is the best way, then I’ll do all I can to support you.”
“It’s the only way. Father was assassinated, possibly by someone from Tycen, possibly by someone within the court. I’m in danger. We need this alliance as much as Thalassa does.”
He didn’t want to think of Father’s death, so violent and sudden. Only by a trick of fate had Arden not been with him at the time. Part of him believed that if he’d been there, he could have done something, but even Father’s highly trained guards hadn’t been able to save him. There had been one attempt on Hollis’s life since, but nothing directed toward Arden, who, until Hollis produced a child, was his sister’s heir. They remained on guard but had somehow managed to keep knowledge of the attempt to kill Hollis and of the real cause of Father’s death from getting out. The alliance with Thalassa would provide needed support, even if it did come at a price.
“When will he arrive?”
“Soon. We have three months until the wedding can take place, but he’ll come early. I thought it best to get his measure first, and Thalassa didn’t disagree.”
Father had only been gone six months, and no celebrations could be held until nine months after his death. Arden wasn’t sure whether that was good in this circumstance. Normally he would be happy for Hollis to have more time, but what if something damaged the alliance in the time between the papers being signed and the marriage? Could Thalassa back out? Hollis seemed content, and the members of the council drafting the agreement were by no means inexperienced. Surely, they would have protected Hollis and Aither. “That’s good, then. You’ll have some time.”
“Yes, I suppose. I’m more worried about whether he can be trusted. At least, in so much as any outsider can be trusted.”
Arden frowned. With Father’s assassination, they had to be more alert and suspicious, but he didn’t like distrusting someone solely because they came from outside Aither and were not of Air. “An alliance requires some level of trust, especially one secured in such a way.”
Hollis’s head snapped up. “You don’t think I know that? I’m the one who has to marry him. Even with all the protections I can put in place, I will still be the most vulnerable person in this situation.”
“I know you will. I’m sorry. I understand.”
“You don’t. You can’t! You’re not the ruler of Aither. You’re not being pushed into an arranged marriage to save your country. You don’t have to wed and produce heirs and control your council and fight for respect. All while ruling a country. You can’t ever understand the responsibilities on my shoulders.”
Arden heard the bitterness in Hollis’s words, knew logically that she was still grieving and taking out her frustration on him, but that didn’t stop the quick punch of hurt. He sucked in a breath and turned back to the window, unwilling to let Hollis see that her words had hit so hard. He looked out at the city below the castle, the trees beyond, and the soaring mountain peaks above them, letting the sight soothe him. He wished the window was open so he could feel the breeze on his face.
“Arden. I’m only upset at the situation.”
“I know.” He didn’t turn to face her. Knowing where her words came from didn’t help. He wasn’t in her position. He wasn’t king. He might be able to choose whom he spent his life with. But in reality, he wondered if anyone would want to marry him for anything other than his wealth and proximity to the throne. Arden and Hollis had been raised together, to respect their position and their duties, to carry the burdens of the royal family. He might not be in Hollis’s place, but he understood, and he stood by her.
That she didn’t see that hurt.
Arden didn’t return to his library when he left Hollis. Instead, he sought out Larkin in the rooms she shared with her husband in the North wing of the palace. A maid admitted him to her sitting room, and a moment later, Larkin glided in with her baby son in her arms. Without a word, she walked up to him and stretched up to kiss his cheek, then smoothly transferred the baby to him. He’d expected it, so he didn’t bobble the child, settling the sleeping baby comfortably in his arms without waking him.
Arden let out a soft laugh. “Will I ever arrive here without you handing off your child immediately?”
“No, and don’t complain. You love it.” The impish smile transformed her face from cool elegance to mischief in an instant. Arden saw the girl he’d grown up with, the two of them running wild—as much as he’d ever been wild, which wasn’t a great deal—with her twin brother. The twins—nearly identical in appearance with their black hair, pale gold skin, and sky-blue eyes—were perhaps his only true friends. Then and now. Arden was nearly positive Father had assumed he would marry one of them, but Arden had never felt more than friendship for either of them.
“What brings you to me? You’re usually working at this time of day, so I doubt it’s a social call.” Larkin sat on one of the sitting room’s comfortable couches, spreading her skirts neatly around her.
Arden lowered himself into the chair at her elbow, careful not to jostle Gower—who probably should have been napping in his cradle, but Arden wouldn’t complain at the chance to hold him. Not that he’d ever admit that to Larkin. She’d be insufferable.
“I assume you know about the outcome of the negotiations.”
“Of course.” It wasn’t even a question. Never mind that the existence of the negotiations was supposed to be secret; she would know, and so would Ciaran. The twins were two of the best spies he’d ever heard of, and he was grateful they were his—nearly as grateful as he was that he had their friendship at all.
“What whispers have you heard on the wind about Prince Edmund?” Arden didn’t expect much more than the generalities he already knew—the twins were far more effective for him close to home—but it was worth asking. Once the prince and his retinue arrived, they’d most assuredly hear more quickly.
“Worried about Her Majesty? You always were a protective brother, no matter that you’re younger than she is.”
“She’d do the same for me.” Arden pushed his sister’s sharp words from his mind. The situation was difficult for her. “And she’s in a tough position. She was thrust into governing too soon and with too little experience. Father taught her, prepared her, but her council doesn’t fully trust her yet. I need to make sure this marriage isn’t something that’s going to undermine her.”
Larkin nodded. “From what Ciaran has gleaned about the agreements signed, the negotiations seem to have come out well for both sides. Her Majesty and Prince Edmund have to marry and produce an heir to seal the alliance within two years, which is a lot to ask of them, but I suppose not more than any child of a royal house expects to be asked at some point. If it holds, we’ll have far more protection from Tycen.”
Larkin was one of few outside the family and council who knew that Father had probably been assassinated by someone acting under the orders of Tycen; she and Ciaran knew the danger. Arden sighed. “I know there’s little else we could have done, but I hate for her to go through everything she has.”