"Loitering in the corridor won't make the hours speed, little dove. Best you come in and have your say."
I hesitated before climbing the last few stone steps to Merlin's chambers. He was the only one who called me little dove. Part endearment, part reminder of my duty. A burden I felt more now than ever. I was Eden Aossi, heir to the Seelie throne and future ruler of the Summer Court. In other words, a royal dove in a gilded cage.
The heavy door was ajar, and it opened the rest of the way on its own. "Why do you always assume I have an ulterior motive?" I asked, stepping over the high-saddled threshold. "Can't I pay a visit to my favorite tutor?"
The grizzled, old wizard was at his brazier. He turned from his latest potion, with his waist-length beard tucked safely away from the low flame. Still, his eyes were clear and as bright blue as a summer sky in the Seelie realm.
"You've been sneaking into my quarters since you could barely see over my worktable. I can still hear your thin, reedy voice, asking question after question. Where does the sun go at night? Why do the waves never stay on shore? Could I turn day into night and then back again? Your relentless curiosity gave your mother no choice. It was either make me your tutor or jail us both."
I lifted a clear vessel from his worktable, holding it so its bright yellow contents caught the firelight. "We both know my mother doesn't deal in no choice. Tianna's decisions are always calculated to her benefit. She knew exactly what she was doing."
Merlin didn't reply. He simply took the clear flagon from my hand and put it back in its holder. Still, the old Druid wasn't wrong. Like everyone in the Summer Court, Merlin served at the pleasure of the queen, but as much as he served at her pleasure, my mother understood Merlin served at his own as well. Lucky for me, he did.
Watching the man putter in his drafty space, it was no wonder his tower was on the farthest side of my mother's palace in a keep all to its own. Merlin's simmerings were best kept as far away from the main court as possible. Both his potions as well as his lack of appreciation for protocol.
"I know you as well as I know myself." He paused, and his eyes took on a faraway look. "Sometimes I wish my knowing wasn't as long or as far-reaching. Prophecy, and the weight it bears is exhausting." His tired gaze lifted toward me. "Then again, what else can be expected of one so long in the tooth?"
Merlin wasn't Fae. He was sorcerer, wizard, mage. The timeless Druid was all of the above, but even that did not explain his origins or his abilities. To be honest, I doubted even he recalled what he was and from where he hailed. His powers spanned both the human and Fae realms and were coveted by both the Seelie and Unseelie. For now, he aligned himself with the Summer Court. Or he had for as long as I remembered.
Blinking, I let my eyes adjust to the dim light. A soft screech caught my attention, and I lifted my gaze toward the high beamed ceiling. Altair, Merlin's owl, sat in the highest joist, while Lyrae, his raven sister, warmed herself in the stained glass at the top of the tower.
The raven was black as night, yet her feathers held a hue of blue that gleamed in the sun. The owl was the color of wet sand, but it wasn't the beauty of his soft feathers that held me. It was the bird's eyes. Large and fathomless, and as riveting as his beak was sharp.
"My feathered friends know I'm often lost while working and have taken it upon themselves to act sentinel. Lyrae especially. Your mother likes to send spies in scholars clothing."
"Sounds like her."
He touched a finger to the side of his nose. "What your mother's spies have yet to discover is the birds help my sight. Lyrae allows me the use of her eyes to see past the Seelie realm into Avalon whole, whereas Altair allows me to see into the human realm. Of course, they are one means to an end. I still have my scrying bowls, or in a pinch, a good fire will do the trick."
He chuckled, closing his book of notes beside the brazier. "Now, my little dove. You're not here to discuss what the queen knows or doesn't know about me. Still, something tells me, she's the reason for this visit."
"Am I that obvious?"
"Only to me."
Merlin turned for the hearth. The Summer Court was perpetually warm, but tower nights were cold this high up.
A cauldron hung from a metal swing hooked to the side of the crackling flames. Leaning in, the wizard stirred its contents.
"Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble." Merlin flashed a soft grin over his shoulder before touching the wooden spoon to his lips.
"Shakespeare," I replied, watching the old man. "I remember."
"The greatest of humanity's bards, at least in my opinion." He nodded, seemingly satisfied with his dinner, and tapped the spoon on the side of the black pot. "I'd ask you to share my supper, but as it was cooked in cast iron, I'd advise against it."
He was right of course. Iron was a bane to all Fae. Toxic, if not deadly. I sat on a low couch beside the hearth, warming my hands. Merlin flourished two fingers, and a tufted chair slid to the hearth opposite me.
"You're a woman, Eden. By human calculations, you achieved your twenty-first year on your last birthday. The time for childhood escapes inside these walls is over, yet here you sit. What has your mother done for you to seek refuge with an old seer once again?"
"An old seer, but still an old friend."
He inclined his head but didn't reply. The fire crackled, and Merlin spooned his dinner into a hammered metal plate in silence. He put his plate on a small wooden table to the side of the chair, and then broke off two hunks from a crusty loaf, handing one to me. "There's cheese on the table, if you want, and small ale in the jug."
I got up for the cheese, taking the flask and two pewter mugs from the table as well. "I know you won't press, so suffice it to say I needed a place where I could think."
"Little dove, I'm too old to mince words. Has your mother arranged a husband for you?"
"Not yet, thank Danú."
"Is she boasting something she wants from me? Last time she demanded I do for her, what I did for Uther Pendragon."
Confused, I looked past my shoulder at him. "I don't understand."
The old man didn't reply because he didn't have to. He simply raised an eyebrow and my jaw dropped. I couldn't fathom it. Or maybe I didn't want to since I knew the Arthurian story well.
"You're saying she wanted you to transform her into the Unseelie Queen to seduce the King."
He eyed me, neither confirming nor denying, but I knew, and my head shook in disbelief. "...but she despises King Lachlan."
"She despises Queen Beira more."
With an irked exhale, I finished filling Merlin's cup. "Now that makes sense. Magically seducing the Unseelie king just to get under Beira's skin is definitely my mother's style."
"Tianna banished me to the badlands for a century because I refused. Still, it was better than the alternative."
He laughed, and the sound was potent and knowing. "Your mother can't kill me, child. If she could, she would have ordered my death centuries ago." He took the mug from my hand and winked. "The alternative, had I done what Tianna demanded, was a millennium of nightmare-riddled sleep. A sleep with no rest and no reprieve. Exile was a vacation."
"So now you understand why I ran here every chance I got. I love my mother, but being her daughter is too much at times. Court is..." I shrugged. "Well, you know what court is like. If not for Sorcha, I'd have asked you to help me escape."
"And where do you think you could go your mother couldn't find you?"
I sat back on the couch. "The human world. There are plenty of Fae there, walking around unnoticed."
"Ah, but none of them royal, and very few full Sidhe." He paused, watching me reach for a piece of bread and cheese. "If you're not here to escape court duties, and you're not here to warn me of another exhausting request from your mother, then why did you come tonight?"
I picked at my food. "Do you know where my sister is at this very moment?"
"Are you asking me to scry for her?"
I shook my head. "I know where she is. I meant do you know what Sorcha's doing right now?"
The old Druid's mouth twitched in humor. "Again, do you need me to look in the glass?"
"For the love of Danú! Sorcha is getting ready for a ball. She's preening in the mirror as we speak."
"Merlin!" I put the pewter plate down with a bang. "Don't you think I know how petulant I sound? How ridiculous I am to complain like this at my age? Running to this place of learning, of magic and divination, to grouse about my love life, or lack thereof, is laughable! My mother would be disgusted if she paid an ounce of attention."
With a grumble, I leaned on the sofa's arm with my chin in my hand. "It's not like there's anything you can do, except listen to my whining."
"Why can't you attend this ball? I'm sure your mother would insist as her heir apparent."
"The ball isn't here."
Merlin's eyebrow hiked again, but this time his eyes were wary. "The gala is not at your mother's court?"
"It's an Unseelie ball. Sorcha got wind of it, but don't ask me how. My mother's network of spies could learn a lot from my sister and her whispering friends."
"I have no doubt."
"Anyway, they all plan to sneak out tonight and attend. As usual, she wants me to cover for her, but I'm tired of being left behind. Of always doing what's right." I sat up straight, throwing a hand in the air. "Of being the heir apparent."
"You sound like Arthur. He didn't want his destiny, either. It took some persuasion."
An unladylike snort left my mouth.
"Your focus is too much on one path, Eden. Your destiny is a journey. Not a destination. There are many paths. Some parallel, and at times, some in opposing directions. Whichever you choose, they all circle back to what will be."
I exhaled. "Me on my mother's throne. If I'm not assassinated first."
"You Fae are so fickle. You love war, even if it makes you your own worst enemy." Food still untouched, Merlin paused, nursing his ale. "What if I told you there was a divergent path? One that didn't circle back to the throne. One that gave you a choice."
My gaze riveted on the old sorcerer. "A choice?"
"The signs are hazy yet, but yes." He nodded. "Nothing more than a ripple in what I see when I journey with the sight. A ripple that leaves me unsettled."
His eyes met mine. "Because this ripple will cause you pain if it comes to pass."
I recoiled a bit, and he raised a staying hand. "Not physical pain, Eden. Pain of choices made, and of the consequences that follow."
"You talk as though you already know." I inhaled, considering his far away stare. "Should I be worried?"
"I have to study my tomes, my charts, and the position of the stars." He drained his ale, wiping the drips from his beard with his hand. "I have to breathe in the dragon's breath and seek clarity before I can answer."
He smiled, getting up from his soft chair. "You, my little dove, must go to this party and forget what's expected of you. If only for a short time. You need to let destiny happens."
"What about Sorcha?" I chewed on my lip. "How will I convince her?"
"Do what the rest of the Sidhe race does when they want something."
His eyes crinkled with a laugh. "I was thinking strategize. Find out what Sorcha wants most, what she refuses to part with, and work from there."
"Well, I'm not my mother's daughter for nothing."
Merlin bent over the hearth, and plucked a round stone from the embers, glowing red with heat.
"Take this, but keep it hidden. If Sorcha refuses you, show her the stone. She'll know what it is, and she'll know where you got it."
I held out my hand, wincing in anticipation, but the stone was cool and smooth to the touch. "What magic is this?" I asked, rolling the stone over in my palm.
"Insurance and protection."
I raised my eyes to his. "Insurance for whom and protection from what?"
"Always questioning." He grinned, stoking the dwindling fire. Perhaps that's why—" He shook his head, leaving the rest of his thought unspoken.
He looked at me over the fire iron in his hand. "Why the fates are still considering."
Merlin didn't explain further. Instead, he pointed to the stone in my hand. "If you are heading into the Unseelie court, you will need to get past their wards, and if discovered, you will need a swift escape. Protection and insurance."
Nodding slowly, I closed my fingers over the stone. "I'm guessing Sorcha will know what this is and where I got it because she has one of her own."
"Yes." He straightened from the fire, leaning the iron poker on the hearth.
I let a tiny smile curl the corner of my mouth. "Such a devious old magician. You knew all along why I came."
"Blame my evasion on an old man's tender heart. I had to weigh the risks." Merlin touched my cheek. "After all, you're still my little dove."
All earlier questions disappeared as I rolled the stone in my palm. "How does the magic work?"
"You must keep the stone on your person. While the stone is hard to the touch, you will stay disguised. Once it softens, it's time to crush it in your palm and come home."
"Like Cinderella and her pumpkin at midnight."
He smiled. "Somewhat. Only this won't leave you walking home. It will teleport you to your chambers. Unseen and unheard."
"What if Sorcha and I are discovered before the stone softens?"
"The stone will know. If you are in any danger, my magic will transport you immediately." He paused a moment. "The fates are even more fickle than the Sidhe. Be aware and be advised. I saw a choice for you, little dove, but that doesn't mean a choice you'll want. It may mean sadness and loss, so guard yourself well. Especially tonight."
Certain I'd squeal giddy if I tried to speak, I pressed a kiss to his wrinkled cheek. I was going to a party, not a court summit. What could possibly happen to set me on an unstable path tonight?
"Eden..." Merlin stepped back, but he held my shoulders. "If you find yourself at a crossroads, promise you'll come here. No hesitation. Don't make an old dragon worry. The consequences can be ghastly."
I searched his crinkled gaze. The seer knew more than he let on, but I didn't question him. If I was in true danger, he'd have never given me the stone, right?
"Eden, there is what I see, and what comes to pass. Free will isn't just a human concern. The Sidhe possess it as well, more than any other Fae, so promise me. You'll come here."
I didn't know what crossroads he saw ahead, but I couldn't tell him no, so I nodded. "I promise. If needs be, I'll come to you."
Merlin's eyes were at my back as I left, and the weight of his gaze made me uneasy. I squelched the apprehensive feeling. Tonight, I'd taste freedom. Tonight, I would simply be Eden, and not the Seelie realm's heir apparent, and hang the consequences.