He was waiting for her, one night, as she walked along the beach. She stopped short, her skirt still clenched in one hand in a half-hearted effort to keep it from getting caked with sand. Her shoes were somewhere up the beach, by a little tree twisted and stunted but eking out a stubborn existence by the high tide line. She dug her bare toes in the sand, feeling him there before she could pick him out. She had learned something of magic, in the past few years, and the air rippled with him, swirling like a tidepool around one particular silver-edged shadow.
His name caught in her throat. One of his names. The name his father had given him. Would he even remember it now? What did his mother call him? What had the sea called him, when he had slipped his human shape, dove joyfully into the waves without looking back?
"Peri." His voice was not the same, soft and deep and sibilant like the rush of the sea. "You haven't changed." There was movement as if he was tilting his head. "Much."
It took her a moment to realize that he was speaking in his mother's tongue. It had been the first thing she had made Lyo teach her.
She shook her head. "It...it hasn't been long."
He hmmmed, a thoughtful, liquid almost-purr. "Not long."
Just long enough to learn her way around the King's castle and how to curtsey properly and how to not embarrass herself when talking to royalty and three new languages and how to speak to the wind and water and how to fall in love again (twice). "No. Not long at all."
"It is so hard to tell, in the sea. I now know why my mother lost track of land-time."
Peri forced her breath to rush into her lungs, full of salt and wet and kelp. "How long did you think had passed?"
"I didn't know. But I promised. I promised to find you, when you are old, and I didn't...didn't want to miss it.... I asked my mother, and she thought it might be ten years, twenty, but she had thought twenty was five before, so I thought it might have been fifty, sixty." He shifted, and the moon shone over wet dark hair. "I did not want to be too late."
Peri let out the sea-heavy breath, feeling salt-water prick the backs of her eyes. She had made him swear that promise out of desperation, sure that once he found the sea it would wipe all other loves from his mind. "You're not late."
"Good.... Good. How is my brother?"
"He is well." Peri's hair chose that moment to toss in the wind, over her face. She sighed in exasperation and caught it, curled it in a fist at the nape of her neck. "He has learned to speak, and write, and calculate. He doesn't care much for court. Too many people, too much noise, he says. But he loves your father very much, and he charms everyone he meets. He's kind and gentle and--what?"
"You're laughing!" Peri accused him, indignant.
"I am not."
"You ARE! I can FEEL it even if I can't see it."
His voice carried his mirth even if she couldn't see his face properly. "Peri, Peri, being snared by mages and princes."
"Hmph." There wasn't much she could say to that. It was true, after all. "You started it."
"So I did. Which did you choose?"
Peri felt her face flush. She was surprised it didn't glow in the dark. "And why do you want to know?"
"So I know who to steal you away from, when you are old."
She blushed harder and let her hair go. It unfurled about her, getting in her face again. "You'll have twice as hard a time, then."
His laugh was swirling foam and sun-dappled droplets. "You cast your net wide."
Her voice was defiant, her toes curling in the sand. "And why not?"
"Why not, indeed. One will make you a magician. The other, a queen."
The tide pulled at Peri's skirt, but she didn't even notice, staring at him. She hadn't thought of that. She huffed, waving a hand in front of her face as if brushing away cobwebs. She caught her hair again. "It's not about being a queen," she said irritably
She couldn't quite tell, but he might have nodded. "No. It's not. I must go." He slid off the rock into the sea, noiselessly, sliding through the shallow tide that had somehow crept up to Peri's knees.
Her heart clenched in her chest. She had learned something of letting go gracefully in five years, though. "Then go. If you have to."
"Here. I brought it, in case." He reached out a long arm, and she could see that it didn't shine pale in the moon, but was dark like a seal's skin. His hand turned over, and cradled in the palm was something small, round, satin-smooth.
Peri reached out, and his hand slid over hers, pressing the pearl into her palm. Cool, wet fingers slid over her hand as it retreated. They were tipped with long nails or tiny claws, gentle along the inside of her wrist. Peri was very proud that she didn't clutch at him like the fifteen-summers girl she'd been the last time she'd seen him.
It was he that reached up for her, his hands twining in her hair, and then she DID clutch at him, her arms winding around his shoulders. His hair was longer than she remembered and smelled of salt and seafoam. She buried her face in it as he murmured, "I'll come back. I'll come back again and again until you oblige me by getting old."
She made herself let go first. "Fine." She sniffed, clutching the pearl so hard it should have melded with her bones.
Seeing him turn, though, she couldn't keep back the call.
He stopped. His head turned to her, and in the turning the moon highlighted cheekbones a bit too high, a mouth a bit too thin, ears a bit too small and set a bit too far back to be strictly human. His eyes still shone the sea's twilight, though, pale with reflected moonlight.
He watched her, waiting, with the patience of the sea.
"What does the sea call you?" she whispered.
He might have smiled, or it might merely have been the moon slipping out from behind the clouds. He said something. It was the moon shining silver on the water, the ceaseless pull of the tides, the swirl of the sea over the sand. Peri closed her eyes, trying desperately to remember it, but it slipped away, and she let it go.
When she opened her eyes he was gone, and the sea was lapping at her thighs, her skirt floating about her. She moved out of the tide, wrung out her skirt, dashed a hand across her eyes, and headed back up the beach to find her shoes.
Compared to the beach's silver-and-midnight, their rooms were gold, the fire reflecting in everything from the buckles on Aidon's discarded boots to Lyo's reading spectacles. It turned both magician and prince into gilded statues, the former settled in the most comfortable chair by the fire, the latter lounging in a distinctly unprincelike fashion on the rug in front of the flames.
"You're wet," Lyo remarked, glancing up from the book balanced on his knees.
"Yes, I'm wet." Peri dropped her sandy shoes (which she'd never bothered to put back on) in a pile by the door and stomped into the bedroom. She emerged a moment later wrapped in a robe of soft, heavy cotton that might have once been Lyo's but which had long ago been appropriated. She flopped down next to the fire, warmed more by Aidon's welcoming smile than by the flames.
"You could have transmuted the water," Lyo observed, as if she'd never left the room.
Peri muttered something uncomplimentary. Her inability to transmute was a sticking point in her training. Lyo insisted it was her hard-headed fisherfolk upbringing. Peri insisted that it was a fault in the teaching. Given that said teacher had once turned an enormous gold chain into tiny blue flowers by mistake (and she still believed it was by mistake, she'd seen his face when he'd done it, after all, all that rubbish about sending a message to the sea floating on periwinkles notwithstanding), Peri felt she had the higher ground in that argument.
"You have the sea in your eyes," Aidon murmured. His fingers slid gently over her cheek, his eyes knowing and slightly sad.
Peri wrapped her chill fingers around his fire-warm ones, swallowing. Aidon sat up, pulling her close, and she buried her face in his shoulder without a word. He did not smell of the sea, but of soap and clean skin and woodsmoke.
"Peri?" Lyo's voice was concerned. Peri felt the change in the air when he sat down next to them, reaching out to lay a hand on her hair. "Did he come back?"
Peri shook her head, then sniffed and nodded. "He...he'd lost track of time. He was checking to see if I'd gotten old."
Lyo chuckled, stretching out to lay propped up on one elbow. "And when he saw that you hadn't?"
"We talked." She looked up at Aidon. "He asked after you."
The fire outlined his smile, turned Aidon's hair to gold as he tilted his head. "And how is he?"
"I think he's happy."
"Good." Aidon's arms tightened around her, his cheek laid against her hair. "I am glad."
"And what of you, our Periwinkle?" Lyo's fingers teased her own open, finding the black pearl there. He stroked the satiny surface with the a wondering fingertip. "Need we worry about you wandering into the sea?" His eyes, as he looked at her, were chocolate brown, then green like new grass, then gold as the fire.
Reading Lyo was difficult at the best of times, but Peri had been a quick study. As had Aidon, who murmured, "Peri has left the sea."
Peri's eyes fell on the black pearl. In the firelight, its soft sheen was lost, eclipsed by the flickering flames playing in Lyo's half-glasses.
Carefully, she stretched up and set the pearl on the small table, next to Lyo's book. "I have left the sea."
Perhaps, she thought as she pulled her magician into the comfortable tangle of limbs, perhaps not forever, but for now.
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