Harry was there when the doors opened, bowing low as he saw the prince climb down from his horse. Prince Thomas was a handsome young man, with the slight points to his ears that marked him as a half-elf and the shifting dark hair, on the edge of being dark green, that marked him as a member of the House of Slytherin.
“Welcome, my lord,” Harry said, rising from his bow. He gathered the servants with his eyes, making sure the grooms were on hand to hold the bridles for the horses of the prince and his escort, the maids stepping forwards with silver basins of steaming water for the riders to refresh their hands and faces with, and the courtyard-cleaners whipping their wands in the passes of last spells that would wipe up any manure or straw dropped since the last passage of the horses. “King James is waiting most anxiously to greet you. May I lead you to him?”
“Will some of your fellow servants show my guards their rooms?”
“Yes, my lord.” Harry didn’t take offense. He did wear the silver tunic of the castle’s steward. And although he was as half-elven as the prince in front of him, he didn’t have the “Blaze,” as Harry privately termed it, the fey energy that made Prince Thomas, and Harry’s own sisters, shine like true elves. “We will also be most happy to unload your horse if you wish it.”
“Leave the saddlebags in the stables.”
“Yes, my lord.” Harry waited only long enough for Prince Thomas to take a stride towards him before he turned and led the way into the castle.
The windows were half-open as they always were at this time of the afternoon, to let in some of the sun but still muffle the rest behind the swags of purple-black mourning that King James had ordered hung up. Prince Thomas’s steps slowed. “Who has recently died?”
“The mourning is for the queen, my lord.”
“But Queen Lily died sixteen years ago!”
“Yes, my lord.” Harry kept his gaze fixed straight ahead, so the prince wouldn’t ask why a mere steward had such a look on his face. “The king prefers to keep her memory fresh, my lord.”
“So I am entering a house under a curse?”
“The curse on the princesses has little to do with Queen Lily, my lord, except that we believe it was inspired by one of her visits to Faerie when she was pregnant with the eldest princesses.” Harry opened the door at the far end of the corridor and stepped into the throne room, light as always. His father was wise enough to know how he needed to impress visiting dignitaries. Only a slight purple haze near the windows invoked his mourning. “But it is well to keep in mind that the king has never recovered from the loss of his wife.”
“Pathetic,” Prince Thomas said, not quite enough under his breath, as he walked past. Harry said nothing. Part of him agreed, and that was the part that had determined that he was unlikely to marry.
“King James, Prince Thomas of the House of Slytherin.”
Harry’s father looked up. He was entirely human, although with the dark hair that Harry had inherited and with enough magical power to cast a soft haze into the air around him at all times. He nodded. “Welcome, Prince Thomas. Did you want to see my daughters so that you might see which of them you want as a consort?”
“I prefer to discuss the curse under which they labor first, Your Majesty.”
Harry raised his eyebrows. The prince’s voice was—less than polite. Why come here at all if he didn’t want to go to the trouble of breaking a curse and earning points for nobility that way? In fact, it was somewhat odd for a half-elven prince to be seeking a half-elven consort at all. Most of them married elves, if they could, to strengthen the beauty and magic of their line.
Maybe there aren’t any elven princesses available. Harry shrugged. It wasn’t something he kept up with, being little inclined to romance, so it could have been true.
“Of course.” King James straightened on his throne. He had hazel eyes that some of his daughters had inherited, but which had been darkened for years now. Harry couldn’t see the man who had won his mother in the one sitting on the throne now. “You should know that my wife had her share of enemies, including those who never forgave her for marrying a mere human noble.”
“So the curse is elven in nature?”
“That’s what we think.” King James sighed a little. “It is extremely complex. Any curse which traps twelve princesses’ souls in an underworld at night must be.”
“At night? Their souls?” Harry didn’t think he was mistaking the fascination in Prince Thomas’s voice. He caught his father’s eye and raised his brows, silently asking if he should withdraw. There were guards in Prince Thomas’s retinue who would need to be taken care of, and after all, he already knew the story of his sisters’ curse.
But the king frowned at him, and Harry remained where he was. Meanwhile, the king nodded to the prince. “Yes. During the day they’re brilliant young women—you shall see. But at night, they become listless and drift around as if sleepwalking, unable to truly fall into slumber. They describe fantastic sights that match some ancient descriptions of the elven underworld.”
“I see,” Prince Thomas murmured. “And no one has tried to free them from it before?”
King James sighed. “I myself have done so. But to break the curse, there must be a member of the royal family and someone who intends to marry one of the royal family’s children on the quest—and they must both have elven blood. I cannot even see the gate to the underworld that some of the nobles who have come to visit me have gone through. When one of the princes or princesses who came persuaded one of my daughters to accompany them, they vanished the moment they stepped into the underworld.”
Prince Thomas was quiet for a long moment. Then he said, “And you will permit me to see the princesses?”
“Of course. None of them are betrothed or promised to another. Break the curse, and you may choose which one you like.”
Harry raised his eyebrows at his father’s back. Yes, things had reached the point of desperation now that the youngest pair of twins had turned sixteen, and his father had never been the man he used to be after losing his wife, but still. He was blind if he didn’t see the glances exchanged between some of Harry’s sisters and a few members of the court.
During the day, at least.
Not that it was Harry’s business. Harry shrugged as he thought about it. He had made a place for himself, and if he took his joy in competence rather than beauty or music or healing skill or fire magic or the other talents of his sisters, at least it was his, enduring all day and all night.
He became aware that Prince Thomas had turned to look over his shoulder, probably wondering why the Potter steward was still here instead of off attending to some task. Harry merely smiled back. His king was the only one who had the right to command him.
Prince Thomas stared for a second longer, and then faced the balcony that the king was drawing the curtains back from. “This is the garden that the princesses play in, then?” he asked.
“It is.” A tone of regret and happiness mingled lifted the king’s voice. “I cannot bear to have any portraits of my late wife around, but you will see her in several of the princesses’ faces.”
Harry nodded. That was another reason he wasn’t as close to his father as his sisters were: except for his green eyes and perhaps a certain suggestion to his cheekbones and chin that Harry himself might be imagining, there was nothing of his mother in his face.
Prince Thomas leaned on the marble railing of the balcony and drew in a harsh breath. Harry smiled a little. He did enjoy the sounds that visitors made the first time they saw the princesses.
Beneath Thomas played twelve young women, the eldest twenty-six, only two years younger than Harry, and the youngest sixteen. Harry leaned in his own corner and let his eyes wander, cataloguing his sisters and wondering how someone would see them for the first time.
Amaranth and Beryl, the eldest pair of twins, were seated close together at a small glass table, their heads bent over parchment. They were both gifted in art, although Amaranth’s talent ran to plans of buildings and Beryl’s to maps. Amaranth’s buildings looked like dreams come true. Beryl drew vibrant, living maps of places she knew, and even more shining ones of places that never were. Prince Thomas wouldn’t be able to see their faces, but their waves of dark hair tumbled down their backs.
Coral and Delphinium were the eldest after Harry’s artistic sisters, but their gifts were in music. Coral, her eyes closed, sang as she stood next to a marble fountain in the center of the garden, her head tilted back. Her hair was red, but she shared her blue eyes with Delphinium, who was dark-haired and was playing a lap harp in a way that brought tears to Harry’s eyes, even though he had heard the song plenty of times before.
Diagonally from them sat Emerald and Flora, green-eyed and black-haired like Harry himself, engaged in use of their healing magic. Emerald’s hands shaped outlines around the flower in front of her, which looked like it might be a dandelion—not that it would matter to Emerald, who only cared about bringing faltering plants back to life. There was a peregrine perched on Flora’s knee, watching with calm eyes as she set its wing. Harry watched. He did enjoy falconry, despite his lack of ability to heal animals as Flora did, and he might pick up some new tricks to use on the birds in their mews.
Garnet was standing on top of the garden wall, because she did that most of the time, juggling balls of fire as scarlet as her hair. She had her hazel eyes fixed on her identical twin, Hyacinth, who sat under a tree and ignored her. Flames were flickering from Hyacinth’s fingers, too, but she didn’t do anything as flashy as throwing balls of fire around. She was instead weaving trails of linked flames above a withered leaf. It abruptly caught and shone, and then a new fresh, perfect leaf appeared. Hyacinth’s gift was phoenix fire.
Iris was giggling to her twin, Jade, behind her hand. Jade ignored Iris, intent on her dance, the most graceful one Harry had ever seen except for her dances in the past, arms lifted above her head while she spun on one toe. Iris, on the other hand, was making her reflection in the mirror in front of her dance, a red-haired and blue-eyed girl as completely active as the one in front of the glass was lazy.
Krystal was smiling at her reflection as she sprawled near a small pond in the corner of the garden opposite Iris and Jade. Harry couldn’t blame her. Krystal’s beauty—shining blonde hair, vivid green eyes of a different shade than Queen Lily’s—was the sort to make people fall silent when she walked into a room. It led her lead and enchant people as well as her twin Lobelia’s speeches did. Lobelia was speaking earnestly to one of the guards now, who had tears flowing down his face.
Harry smiled a little wryly. Lobelia was good at speeches, but a little young for practical ethics. Harry would probably have to find the guard and talk him out of donating all his wages to the less fortunate or whatever Lobelia had talked him into.
There was wonder wherever he looked, he thought. And the Blaze in their faces. His sisters had different kinds of beauty from each other, and different kinds of talent and magic, but they still looked fey. They would still make good brides, if their curse could be healed.
“Which one of them do you fancy?” King James was asking Prince Thomas now, and Harry looked up, faintly curious now that the introductions were done.
Prince Thomas was looking back and forth among the twelve princesses in the garden. Harry had thought he might look entranced, or confused, given that there were twelve of them, but he looked—odd. Bored? Harry blinked. That wasn’t the usual emotion anyone got when watching his sisters.
“I suspect I might not know that until I have the chance to talk to them in person,” the prince said coolly, and glanced over his shoulder at the king. “I have a few questions, however.”
“Ask.” King James looked heartsick, his eyes flickering over the garden and back and forth among his daughters, as if he saw his dead wife in every single one of them. Harry suspected that he did.
“First, I may choose any of your children? None of them are betrothed or promised?”
“No,” King James agreed. “How could they be, when they have been under this dreadful curse all their lives?”
“Very well,” Prince Thomas said. His mouth thinned, and his fingers tapped on the balcony’s railing again. “The second thing I want to know is why my mother said she received seven joyous announcements of your queen’s pregnancies from Faerie, but there are only six sets of twins below. Did another set of twins die?”
The king blinked, while Harry tensed. Then King James said, “Well, of course not. My queen’s first pregnancy produced my son, who is here.” He waved a hand vaguely behind him at Harry.
The prince turned and stared at Harry. Harry raised his chin in response. He always hated the moment when someone found out he was royal. They were inevitably disappointed because, even though Harry was half-elven like his sisters, he didn’t have the same beauty or magic.
“Your son is your steward?” Prince Thomas asked, not taking his eyes off Harry.
“Yes. Harry runs my household for me.” King James smiled at Harry, who nodded back to his father. “And he does a good job, as well.”
Prince Thomas nodded, an absent gesture, while his eyes continued to watch Harry in a way that made Harry distinctly uncomfortable. “Then why has he never gone to the gate into the underworld with the royalty who visit to try and court your daughters?”
“I can’t see the gate, either,” Harry said quietly. “The magic isn’t that strong in me. There was fear that, even if I could be guided through the gate, I would be blind in the underworld, too, and more of a hindrance than a help.”
He endured another second of that deep, direct stare; then Prince Thomas turned to the king. “For now, I wish to speak to the princesses. I will attempt the gate on the morrow, and I will wish for Prince Harry to accompany me.”
Harry didn’t allow a sigh to leave his lips, but he wanted to.
The bell from Prince Thomas’s quarters had summoned Harry. Harry didn’t wonder how the prince had known exactly which one to ring to get the steward. He was charming enough to have it out of one of the other servants in a few moments.
Harry opened the door of the prince’s quarters and studied the front room, which he sat in. There were three low wooden tables in a triangle in the center, surrounded by comfortable couches and chairs covered with furs. “Is everything all right, my lord? Do you need more wine?”
Prince Thomas didn’t respond. Harry looked up and found the prince sprawled on the longest couch, the one draped with the skin of a manticore. His eyes were narrowed.
“I lack company,” he said, with the abruptness that seemed to be one of his defining traits.
“Yes, my lord. Is there someone you would like me to summon from your retinue?” Harry maintained the stare and didn’t blink. The other nobles who had come to court his sisters had had better manners than to bring pleasure companions with them, but it wouldn’t surprise Harry if the Slytherin prince was different.
“I want intellectual company. Sit down, Prince Harry.”
Harry grimaced but took his place on the couch across from Prince Thomas, although he refused the glass of wine the man held out to him. “I will ask that you don’t call me that in front of the other servants. It emphasizes distinctions of rank that I would rather aren’t preserved.”
“You’re the strangest royal I’ve ever met.” Prince Thomas had adjusted his position, but only so that he could stare directly at Harry over the rubies on the goblet. “Why in the world would you serve as a steward and conduct yourself like a servant?”
“You must have noticed, my lord.” Harry blinked. Certainly no one else who came had ever failed to notice, and the last thing he would say about the prince was that he was unobservant.
“I won’t let you address me that way.” For a moment, there was a hiss along the edge of the prince’s words, and serpentine shadows flickered on the wall. “Call me Tom.”
Harry blinked again. “Not Thomas?”
“Thomas was the name of my father. My mother gave it to me to honor him, and to try and persuade my people that I am at least half-human, but I despised it, and him. Tom is what I go by to my intimates.” He fiddled with the base of his wine goblet, eyes locked on Harry.
Harry licked his lips and tried to ignore the unsettling implication that he might be an “intimate” of this confusing prince. “Your mother is Queen Merope, I know. An elf.”
“Yes. Now, tell me what you mean by your lowering of yourself to the dirt having an obvious reason.”
Since Harry had managed to establish himself in the steward’s place and routine, little had sparked his temper, but he leaned forwards now. “Only if you tell me why you came here seeking one of my sisters as a consort, instead of a wife.”
“You are much more elven when you’re angry,” Tom said approvingly, and Harry just kept glaring at him, too incensed to even care what he meant. “I’ll answer your question first, as it shows evidence of intelligence that even your father didn’t demonstrate. My father was a consort, you know. My mother wanted to show that she ruled in her own name, not with a king by her side.”
“Why would she need to do that?” Harry asked, truly baffled. It was true that women, although placed above men in Faerie, sometimes received bad reactions when they ruled in their own names over human lands, but any elfwoman… “She should have been able to make them do whatever she wanted with her Blaze. I mean, the glamour, the beauty, the magic, that you can see any of my sisters has,” he added, when Tom’s head tilted. “My mother had it, too.”
“I see that you don’t know as much of the history of the Kingdom of Slytherin as I assumed you did. But you saw how the shadows changed around me earlier. What do you think that means, Harry?”
It was weird to hear his name unadorned like that; his father mostly called him “my son,” and everyone addressed him as “Steward” if they honored his wishes or “Prince Harry” if they didn’t. Harry blinked hard and focused on answering the question. “It means—shit, your mother is Unseelie!”
Tom’s smile was slow and crept across his face like something out of a cave. “Exactly. And although I have power—your Blaze, an interesting name—yet there is concern that people might turn away from me to follow someone like one of your sisters if she was my wife. Seelie elves and half-elves have such a hold on the hearts of humans.”
Harry nodded as slowly as Tom had smiled, thinking through that. His mother had been a Seelie elf, as were most of those who came out of Faerie seeking to marry into human royal families or become the heirs of kingdoms whose royal lines had gone extinct. It made sense. The Seelie’s power was one with light and music and beauty, all qualities that humans valued, and what Harry knew very well was the long-term elven campaign to take over human kingdoms and integrate them into Faerie worked better when humans followed glamour of their own free will.
Unseelie elves were just as beautiful as Seelie ones, but their power was of the shadows and the sunset, naked strength and blood, and most of them had spent far more time deep into Faerie, not on the border of human lands. If they despised humans, they naturally wished to keep avoiding them, but if they did not, they had to work harder to hold the hearts and minds of their subjects.
“And do you think that calling whoever you marry a consort instead of a wife will really make a difference?” Harry shook his head. “I would think your mother would still worry about someone who’s half-Seelie usurping your prerogatives.”
“That is a potential problem,” Tom agreed, in a way that said he wasn’t prepared to discuss it further. Harry thought it probably related to some internal politics of the Slytherin kingdom that the prince didn’t want to discuss. “Now, tell me what you meant about having an obvious reason to lower your station.”
“I don’t think of it as lowering my station, really. I’m lucky enough to be good at a steward’s work, and that means I can have a place here without people continually comparing my talents with my sisters’.”
Rough and demanding, Harry thought, but he supposed that was to be expected of someone raised by an Unseelie parent. “You must have noticed that I appear much more human than I do elven.”
“Despite your heritage being the same as my own, yes.”
“I don’t have the skills that my sisters do, in art or music or beauty or healing or—anything else.” Harry sighed. “My sisters attract the attention and the courtship offers, despite the curse they’re under, that I can’t. My father has chosen Lord Black, another noble from our country, to rule when he’s dead.”
The hiss was back on the edge of Tom’s voice. Harry just watched, unimpressed, until the shadows went back to normal and he was listening instead of speaking. “My people are deep under the spell of glamour. I think the Potter kingdom will be one of the first to be attached to Faerie when the blue hills expand. I can’t rule them. They wouldn’t follow someone as ordinary and human-looking as I am.”
“You should get angry more often. That makes your eyes light up and shine like a Seelie elf’s.”
Harry blinked, unsure what to do with that information or why Tom had offered it, then shrugged. “If you do think that you can guide me through the gate and that I won’t be a hindrance to you in the underworld, then I’d be happy to accompany you.”
“Yes, you will.”
Harry rolled his eyes openly this time and stood up. “Is there anything else you require, my lord? I should return to my duties.”
“We will be leaving at ten tomorrow morning.”
“Yes, my lord,” Harry said, for the sheer pleasure of watching Tom’s eyes flare with contained violence, and then he gave a bow that he didn’t try to make less than mocking before leaving and shutting the door behind him.