Prince of Land and Fire (Three Brothers Fair 2)
All rights reserved.
Copyright ©2018 Emily Carrington
In Tian’s opinion, mid-October was too early to begin a winter solstice festival. The grass still glowed with summer’s barely gone promises, and the trees had just started dropping their leaves. Yes, his mother’s word was law, but should her say-so dictate the actions of the entire royal family and the court?
The “entire royal family” meant only Tian and her just now. Maybe that was why he felt the pressure so intensely. It wasn’t right to attend balls and ceremonies designed for the winter solstice while the geese still hadn’t flown south. Worse, when he scanned the crowded float where the first ball was being held, he saw no one he had any interest in dancing with.
He started, grimaced in response to his less than relaxed attitude, and then had to smile as he faced the kelpie courtier addressing him. “Hello, Matthew.” He raised an eyebrow at the mildly attractive court musician. “May I help you?” Tease. Make Matt ask for what he wanted. These were the roughest games Tian was allowed to play if he wanted to tumble into bed with more than himself this night.
Matthew bowed low. “Will you dance, Lord Tian?”
Tian withheld a yawn. The responses had worn lines in his tongue. “I have danced.”
“Will you dance with me?”
“Now?” Please, please, get this part over.
“If you will, my lord.”
Tian caught Matthew’s hand, urging him to straighten. “Always. You tempt me every time you move or speak.” He guided his prey to the middle of the floating ballroom. Every kelpie of lower rank cleared a space for him. And the musicians who had been muddling through a lesser-known ballad paused midphrase and began a syncopated version of the royal jig.
Matthew pressed himself against Tian and undulated his hips.
“I like you too,” Tian whispered, his words safely hidden under the fiddles. Kicking up his heels, he spun in a tight circle, smiling a little to himself when Matthew giggled.
“May I cut in?”
Tian tripped over his hooves, staggered a few steps, and managed to click his right hoof hard into Matthew’s shin. He kept his dancing partner from falling, but there was nothing he could do to wipe the look of pain off Matthew’s face.
“Forgive me,” he said, and now it was his turn to bow. “If you need help getting to a seat…” He offered his arm.
“No, Lord. I can manage.” Matthew repeated that obsequious bow, though now his gaze was focused beyond Tian. “My lady, I offer you my place.”
Another courtier, one of Matthew’s dozen or so sisters, materialized out of the crowd and put Matthew’s arm over her shoulders. Meeting Tian’s eye, she blushed and retreated with her brother at her side.
Tian smiled politely after her. You’re not my type, Cathy, but I’d rather marry you than the earth elemental of my mother’s prophecy. He extended his hand without looking and repressed a wince when his mother took it. Then he resumed the dance.
“Your clumsiness should have been conquered long ago,” Lady Weinberg said by way of greeting. “I seem to recall Andrew giving you hours of his time before you were at last ready to join the court promenades.”
Andrew, one of Tian’s currently absent brothers, was Andy to all unless he was in trouble. Tian cleared his dry throat. “I beg you not to criticize Andy for my shortcomings.” It wouldn’t do any good to remind her that his dancing was usually flawless. He led her into a series of turns consistent with the Royal Jig and watched with satisfaction as she had to struggle to keep in perfect step. Her look of concentration seemed more important than speech.
When they returned to the simpler movements, she said, “My use of Andy’s name doesn’t mean I’m displeased with him.”
Understood. I annoy you. “Please inform me of what concerns you, Mother.” Lunar Spirit, save me from a lecture. He hoped the tongue-lashing he was about to receive wouldn’t be too painful. She wore an expression of mild irritation rather than a murderous visage.
“You were flirting with the wrong person.”
This again? “Until I meet my intended husband, I am permitted to sleep with others. As long as I treat them with respect.” Which meant pleasuring with pain wasn’t allowed.
“Hans has already fulfilled his part of the prophecy. Almost twenty-five years ago. And from his letters, I gather he is quite content with his role in history.”
Tian considered pulling away, running to the edge of the floating ballroom, and diving into the chilly waters of the loch. But he would either have to shed his clothing or swim encumbered by trousers and shirt. Both would cause discomfort and frustration. So he bent his head a little and answered, “My flesh and heart haven’t called out to any of the earth elementals I’ve met as Hans’s body and soul called out for Prince Felimid.”
“Perhaps you haven’t given any of them a chance.” She scowled and leaned close. “Christian, you are not Hans, who has always been in tune with his soul’s voice. And you are not accustomed to listening to my suggestions as Andy is. And with your father gone and the weak lunar cycle rapidly approaching, the prophecy has become crucial. You must find your husband before the winter solstice.”