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.
"Good luck, my son."
Harry smiled at his father and reached up to clasp his shoulder. “Yes, Your Majesty.” He hesitated, because his father had had his hopes raised only to be disappointed so many times before, but finally he said, “I do think that Prince Slytherin can actually do it this time.”
The king sighed, a shadow that was more than the loss of Harry’s mother racing across it for a moment. “Let’s hope so. I’m not looking forward to what’s going to happen when I’m dead if your sisters are still under this curse.”
Harry nodded. Lord Black, Sirius, was a good man—well, elf, mostly—but he would want to promote the interests of his own children, and he regarded all Harry’s sisters as beloved goddaughters. He might stop entertaining royals who tried and failed to free them from the curse and just insist that all of them could live at home for the rest of their lives and play, and who cared about the night when they drooped and lost their spirits?
“Prince Harry. Your Majesty.”
Harry turned. Prince Thomas was coming down the steps into the garden, where they had watched Harry’s sisters yesterday. And despite the fact that Harry knew the gate was off in one corner somewhere, although he couldn’t see it, and ought to be drawing the Slytherin Prince’s eye, the man was looking and smiling at him.
“Prince Thomas,” Harry said, to get some of his own back by using the name the prince hated, and ignored the glare he got in response. He turned to his father. “I’ll see you this evening, then.” No matter how much time passed subjectively in the underworld for those who went through the gate, they always reemerged from it in the evening of the same day.
King James gave him a weak smile. “Yes, Harry.” He turned to Prince Thomas, seemed as if he was about to say something, and then ended up shaking his head and walking back into the palace.
“Excuse him,” Harry murmured. “Things have been so hard for him since my mother died.”
“And yet, not as hard as they have been for his children.” Prince Thomas stared at Harry again.
“Can’t you see the gate, either?” Harry asked, although he doubted that. Lord Black’s grandfather had been Unseelie, although both he and his daughter had married Seelie half-elves, and Sirius had no trouble seeing it.
“Of course I can. I simply have other things I prefer to look at more. And call me Tom.”
Since they weren’t in front of any other stewards or servants, Harry supposed he could. He turned away with a slight shrug and faced the corner where he had seen so many people disappear into thin air. “Does it look like an archway of golden light?”
“Yes.” Tom’s hand feathered up Harry’s neck, which made him tense his shoulders and shake his head. The prince dropped his hand and said nothing about it. “Come with me now. I’ll guide you so that you don’t fall.”
Harry rolled his eyes about the mocking tone in the git’s voice, and held out his hand without comment. Tom immediately wound Harry’s arm tightly through his and began gliding with that grace that Harry found so hard to imitate.
Harry just shrugged and kept walking. They were on the dewy grass of the garden for only a few steps. Then the air around them flared as if they were inside a crystal goblet, and Harry gasped as the horizon in front of him turned white and then the ground beneath their feet did as well.
“Welcome to the elven underworld, Prince Harry.”
Harry was too busy looking around to answer the mocking tone in Tom’s voice. Legends about this underpart of Faerie where souls traveled didn’t do it justice. There was the same crystalline feel to the air, which curved above them as if they were inside a globe. The ground underneath was a soft, pearlescent green, highlighted by drifting scraps of silvery mist. Ahead of them were dark hills and fields, which Harry thought were almost indigo, and like the legendary blue hills of Faerie seen through a darkening lens.
“There’s the first manifestation of the curse,” Tom murmured, leaning, in Harry’s opinion, unnecessarily close and breathing along his ear as he pointed towards a shimmering figure on the ground in front of them.
Harry slowly walked closer. He had been unable to understand what he was seeing in the figure at first, but now he made it out. It was a closed flower, or looked like one, planted in the ground and throbbing slowly. It was the same indigo color as the hills—no, perhaps a little darker. Harry quenched the temptation to reach out and touch it.
“How do you know this is the curse?” he murmured.
“Can you really not see the light that illuminates it? How different it is from the rest of the underworld?” Tom shot him a swift glance.
“I must not be able to,” Harry said, and ignored the disapproving expression on Tom’s face. He had made his peace long ago with not seeing like an elf. Besides, he was just glad that he hadn’t been blinded entirely to the underworld. “So what should we do with it?”
“It looks like an amaranth flower,” Tom explained, which made Harry slant a glance at him. He looked entirely serious, however, so Harry just nodded, assuming Tom could see some resemblance that he couldn’t. “Your eldest sister’s name is Amaranth, and she is skilled in drawing buildings. So we should build a small one to contain the flower.”
“How—does that make sense?” Harry had thought he understood the nature of Faerie, and then he continually met challenges that untangled his own assumptions.
“It’s an elven curse,” Tom said, shrugging. “It turns your sisters into shadows of themselves at night, the time when shadows are strongest. And it makes sense that it would take the princesses’ own gifts to undo it.”
Harry shrugged back. He supposed it made sense that Tom, the son of an Unseelie elf, understood the nature of a curse based on shadows. “It does seem rather simple, though. Unless the building has to be as beautiful as one of the ones Amaranth designs. I’m no good at that.”
“It’s not simple to an elf,” Tom murmured. He appeared to be scanning the ground. He picked up a flat stone and handed it to Harry. “Their gifts are made their curses. No elf would be able to actually destroy the beauty your sisters can create, but they can use it to enchain them. And I’ll take care of making sure the building is beautiful.”
He would have to take charge of it, Harry admitted after a while, as he piled the stones where Tom told him to, around the flower and in careful rings and arches. Harry couldn’t see the overall shape, but he also couldn’t see the stones that Tom found under clumps of grass and beside trees and small trickles of water. On the other hand, if they broke the curse, then what mattered was that it was broken. Harry didn’t need to have credit for it or even know that he had played an equal part.
The small clinking noises the stones made as they put them together ended when Harry carefully put what seemed to be a small marble keystone into place on a final arch and then the whole world lit up around them.
Harry gasped and threw a hand over his eyes. He felt Tom’s hand on his shoulder, and another unnecessary breath on his ear as Tom said, “It worked.”
Harry opened his eyes slowly. In front of him stood a small, graceful house made of white marble, not piled stones, with soaring spires like some of the palaces that Amaranth drew in her free time. A single, open amaranth flower blossomed out of the roof. Harry shook his head in wonder.
“And you think it would be broken for her alone?” he asked. “Or would it have some link to Beryl, since they’re twins?”
“Only for Amaranth.” Tom had his hand on Harry’s shoulder still. Harry tried to shrug it off. Tom rode the motion with his fingers and kept them in place. “We will have to press on to find the other challenges. And I do expect them to be harder. An elven curse strengthens as each link in the chain is broken, not gets weaker.”
“Oh, wonderful.” Harry kept staring at the small house. After a moment, he frowned.
“What is it?”
Harry deliberately moved away. Tom kept standing so close that Harry could feel his hair and the brush of his clothes when he moved. “I just think it’s a shame that, when it was this simple, Amaranth has been under the curse for so many years,” he said quietly.
“They got what they deserved.”
Harry jerked himself around. “Say that again,” he whispered, his hands dropping to his sides.
Tom smiled at him. “Yes, I do like to see your eyes glowing like that.”
“My sister did not deserve what happened to her,” Harry spat. “Is this a part of you being Unseelie, that you blame people for things that they didn’t bring on themselves?”
Tom motioned towards him and kept moving, away from the small stone house that held the amaranth blossom. Harry reluctantly followed. The country around them looked different now, he noticed. The indigo hills had become defined, and some of then now resembled mountains ornamented with gigantic golden statues of griffins and winged horses. Wings cut the air far above. In front of them, not that far away, was something flat blue and shimmering that didn’t look much like water.
“I mean the other royals who attempted to break this curse deserve any shame they will get when we return and tell them how simple it was,” Tom said. “They could have got what they wanted so easily by bringing you with them. But they neglected you.”
Harry shook his head. “They couldn’t be sure that I would be of any service here. For that matter, I’m still not sure that I’m seeing what you are. Do you see something flying above us?”
“Of course, though perhaps more clearly than you do. But they could still have tried. Just as you could have tried to be a prince, and dropped the retiring servant act.”
“The household needed someone to run it after my mother died!”
“And a servant could have done that. Come, I think the next part of our quest approaches.”
Harry reluctantly looked up. The flying shape overhead had resolved itself into a more distinct one. Harry frowned. He could see the edges of horns, and what looked like ruffles on the bat-shaped wings, and—
“A dead one,” Tom said off-handedly. “A live one wouldn’t be in the underworld. But yes, I think it is.” He raised his hand, and he abruptly held a huge, poison-green blade that he must have drawn from somewhere unseen. “I suspect you will be necessary to battle it, but stay behind me for now. I am going to try speaking to it in Parseltongue.”
“And you think that’ll work?” Harry found himself unable to take his eyes off the dragon as it approached. Close to, he could see that the skull was black, as if it had passed through fire. The rest of the body seemed to be a mixture of bones and mist, as though the dragon had wrapped itself in a shroud before taking flight.
“Why not? Now be quiet.” Tom stepped forwards, his sword extended to one side of his body, and spoke in a hissing language. The dragon kept coming for them, body snaking through the air. Harry watched. Maybe Parseltongue would work after all.
Then the dragon opened its mouth and spat black flames.
The fire punched down towards Tom, who frowned at it as if he couldn’t believe that even a dead—or undead—dragon would be this impolite. Harry flung himself forwards and knocked Tom off his feet by tackling his knees. Tom went down with a sharp huff of air and an even sharper snap at Harry, but at least the fire sailed past his head and scorched a tree instead. Well, it turned some of the tree’s branches into shadows, which Harry thought was probably the same thing here.
“I would have been fine,” Tom said, shoving at Harry’s shoulders.
Harry stood back up, facing the sky warily. The dragon had turned and was moving back towards them with no hurry. Perhaps that meant that it wasn’t going to hate them.
But it could still destroy them, Harry thought, staring at the empty eye-sockets of the skull.
“Have you tried speaking to it normally, instead of commanding it the way you probably did?” Harry snapped irritably over his shoulder.
“I have no idea what you mean.”
There was an undertone to Tom’s voice that said he very well did. Harry rolled his eyes and said to the dragon in the same kind of tone he would use to a horse that was being stubborn about going to the farrier, “Excuse me. Can you leave us alone? We’re here for a quest that probably has nothing to do with you.”
The dragon pulled up sharply, hovering over him. The wings lay motionless on the air, reinforcing Harry’s impression that it was really nothing like a normal dragon.
Tom drew in a sharp breath behind him, but for once seemed to have nothing to say. Maybe he was still too upset about the fact that his Parseltongue obviously hadn’t worked on the dragon, Harry thought smugly. He nodded. “If you are part of our quest, then perhaps you could let us complete it and be on our way? I promise that neither of us wants to destroy you.”
The dragon continued to float, staring. Then it landed on the ground and held out one leg that seemed to be more darkness than bone.
Harry relaxed. The dragon had responded like some of the horses in the stables did when Harry spoke to them, or the cats that did the mousing in the kitchens. Other servants always fetched him when there was an animal that needed dealing with. Honestly, Harry didn’t think that he did anything they couldn’t learn. They just had to be kind to the animals instead of yelling or hitting or flinging old boots.
Harry glanced over at Tom as he walked towards the dragon’s spread foreleg, and found him gaping. Harry grinned. It was kind of a good look on him.
Tom snapped his mouth shut in the next second, of course, and said haughtily as he followed Harry, “I don’t like people who lie to me.”
“That means about as much as ‘I’d like a cheese sandwich’ right now,” Harry told him, flinging his leg over the dragon’s back. There was cold nothingness beneath him at some points and knobs of bone at others, but it still beat sitting in one of those uncomfortable banquets that his father hosted now and again.
“I don’t like cheese.”
Harry rolled his eyes and heard Tom settle behind him. He nodded to the dragon and said, “Can you take us wherever you need to take us, please? I think that you might know, if you’re part of the curse.”
The dragon did indeed seem to know, if the speed it used to lift them from the ground was any indication. Harry sat back, smiling, and watched the ground pass below. There were several trees with shadows as part of them. He wondered if that meant the dragon had breathed fire on them, too.
“You lied to me.”
Tom’s arms linked painfully tight around Harry’s waist, interrupting his triumph. He shook himself in irritation. “What are you talking about?”
“You said that you had no elven magic.”
“I don’t. Not really.”
“You can make yourself understood by the dragon.”
“That’s not magic, that’s common sense.” Harry glanced over his shoulder, and found the Slytherin prince’s intense eyes staring at him again. He turned away uncomfortably. They were dark, he could say that, but he didn’t know whether they were blue or indigo or a green deeper than his own. He didn’t want to know. He didn’t want to look that closely into Prince Tom’s eyes. “Treat animals kindly, and sometimes they’ll listen and help you.”
“Would it surprise you to know that I heard your voice change?”
“But you could understand what I said. It wasn’t Parseltongue.”
“Yes. But your kindness is also an ability to make yourself understood by animals.”
Harry shrugged. Maybe that was true, but he’d never thought so. Not all horses or cats listened to him, even when he spoke as gently as he could, and the dragon might not have, either. And sometimes animals seemed willing to listen, but didn’t understand him. “It’s a minor talent, if that. Nothing like Hyacinth’s ability to bring the dead back to life or Iris’s ability to make her reflection dance.”
“Those talents to me seem singularly useless.”
Harry gaped at the dragon’s neck in front of him, because he didn’t feel like turning around and staring at Tom again right now. “What? Resurrecting the dead is useless?”
“Has she ever brought someone back from the dead who is human or elven?”
“Well, no,” Harry had to concede. “Only leaves and flowers. And once a kitten that had just barely died.”
“I rest my case. Your talent seems much more useful.”
Harry frowned and spent some time arranging the words he wanted to speak in his own head, while the dragon soared on over fields of wavering blue grass and flowing streams that went steadily uphill. Finally, Harry said, “You seem intent on taking my part, which makes no sense, as you barely know me. Is it just because you dislike my father?”
“I don’t dislike your father, or I wouldn’t have come to his kingdom to acquire a consort.”
“Of course,” Harry said slowly. Those words had been just a little too quick, to his ears. Perhaps Tom didn’t have any particular feelings towards Harry’s father, but he did seem to be lying about something. “That still doesn’t make any sense about why you’re so upset about me having a magical talent and serving as a steward.”
The dragon began to slow, and Tom tightened his hold on Harry’s waist as if he anticipated being thrown off. He nodded ahead of them. “Perhaps this should wait until we’ve dealt with that?”
Harry looked up, and blinked. A mountain had loomed abruptly in front of them, one that had a flaring “waist” that then tapered back in again, so it looked like it was perched on a gigantic diamond-shaped base. The base of the diamond itself was perched on a tree. And the dragon was aiming for a black spot high in the purple and white, one that grew clearer as Harry watched. “The cave with its hoard, do you think?” he murmured.
“I would assume so, Harry.”
Harry kept his roll of his eyes to himself, but he really didn’t understand why Prince Thomas had to keep saying his name again and again. It was as if he wanted to prove a point, but Harry could have told him there was no one on the other side of the gameboard.
The dragon raised its wings as they came down on a lip of ledge near the cave entrance. It was big enough for the whole of the dead dragon’s snaky body, although Harry held his breath at first believing it wouldn’t be, and once again the creature extended its leg. Harry smiled at it as he stepped down over the claws ignoring the fact that Tom had got down first and had his hand extended to help him. “Thank you.”
Mist seemed to fill the empty sockets of the skull, the only sign Harry was sure of that he had been heard, and then the dragon turned and lay with its chin facing the underworld. Harry stepped into the cave, Tom guiding himself with a hand on Harry’s shoulder.
Jewels sprawled everywhere in the cavern, piled up to the walls, hanging on stalactites from the ceiling, draped over the edges of trunks and goblets. Harry frowned. They were obviously supposed to search for something specific in here, but he had no idea how.
Tom made a thoughtful noise, and Harry glanced at him, hoping he had some idea. Tom met his eyes and smiled. “I was just thinking how much wealth these jewels could bring to my House.”
“You’re not taking them.”
“You’re assuming that any of them would even survive the transition back to the human world in their present form,” Tom retorted. “There are enough legends of what jewels transform into when taken outside the gates of the underworld that I would not risk it.”
“Then why even talk about taking the risk?” Harry turned back to the hoard. “And I don’t know what we’re supposed to look for.”
“To see the look on your face.”
Harry turned around and glared. Tom sighed. “It’s not mysterious, Harry. I told you before that I prefer you when your eyes shine like a Seelie elf’s.”
“Tell me what we’re supposed to look for.”
“What makes you think I would have any idea? They are your sisters.”
“You wouldn’t have spoken if you didn’t. You wanted to show off your intelligence.”
This time, when Tom narrowed his eyes, Harry decided that he had a name for their color. They were indigo, the color of the hills of the underworld.
“A beryl,” Tom said coolly. “That is what your second eldest sister is named for, is it not?”
Harry wanted to groan aloud with his own stupidity, and he would have if he’d been with anyone else, but now he turned his back and faced the hoard. When he closed his eyes, he could feel an intriguing warmth in one particular direction, towards the back of the cave.
He waved his hand, and murmured, “Accio.”
“A human spell?” Tom said behind him with something like disgust, but Harry ignored that. If anything, the man should have learned by now that Harry was more human than he was elven.
There was a long rush of clattering and clacking, as though jewels were being shouldered aside, and then something shot towards Harry and slammed into his hand. He opened his eyes and grinned at the oval-shaped beryl shimmering there.
When he peered closer, he realized there was a huge and obvious flaw in the beryl. It looked almost like a stain, but as he studied it, the features of a face came clear. Beryl’s face, frozen in an endless, terrified scream.
Revolted, Harry ignored what Tom was trying to say and turned and threw the beryl as hard as he could.
It slammed into the wall of the cavern, and broke open. Harry caught his breath. He shouldn’t have done that—he shouldn’t have reacted that way and what harm might it have done to his sister—
But then Tom came up behind him and leaned on his shoulder in that overly-familiar fashion, and murmured, “I think that’s your second sister free.”
Harry swallowed. “But how can you think so? I broke the jewel.”
Tom gave him a curious glance and then led him towards the broken gem. When Harry bent down towards it, he gave a vast sigh of relief. The cracks had made a map, one of the ones that Beryl had practiced drawing over and over again: the coasts and outlines of the continent where the human kingdoms existed with Faerie.
“I suppose the way we freed her didn’t have to do with maps, the way Amaranth’s architecture helped us free her, but we can still see it as a sign,” Harry said.
“Yes, we can.” Tom locked an arm around his shoulders, and turned him back towards the mouth of the cave. “In the meantime, I’m very anxious to make a camp for the night.”
“Night?” Harry looked towards the small portion of sky he could see through the cave entrance and beyond the head of the dragon, but it looked the same as ever to him.
“Nights and days in the underworld are what you make of them,” Tom admitted with a shrug. “But I feel the need for some rest and food. I brought enough with us that we won’t have to eat anything here, which would be…unwise.”
Harry could only agree. He reached out to climb up the undead dragon’s foreleg again, but then paused. It was faint, but a growl was welling up towards them. Harry stared at the beast and wondered what had changed, but then realized that the “gaze” of the empty sockets was pointed behind him, at Tom.
Harry turned around. “What did you do?”
“What makes you think I did something? Are you going to believe an undead beast over me?”
“I would believe lots of beasts over you,” Harry said dryly.
Tom stood motionless beneath both pairs of eyes for a moment. Then he shrugged and began to empty gemstones from his pockets. Harry stared at him, then snorted. “And you think it’s a good idea to take jewels out of the underworld when you said they might transform?”
“Worth a try,” Tom said, as the dragon stopped growling and held out its foreleg again.
Harry shook his head and hung back. Tom glanced at him. “What? That was the last of the gems, as you ought to be able to tell.”
“I want you to be in front this time, so you don’t hang onto my waist in that creepy way.”
“Just for you, Prince Harry,” Tom purred, “I’ll show you how creepy I can be.”
And he leaned back so that his shoulders were pressed to Harry’s chest all the way down. Harry sat there, and fumed.
“I don’t understand why you put yourself in a servant’s place.”
“But if I didn’t do that, Prince Thomas, who else would cook the dinner? You?”
Harry held his breath in to keep from laughing as he caught the look on Tom’s face from across the fire. He looked as though he had so many things to be revolted by that he didn’t know how to choose. Harry focused on making sure that the silvery trout Tom had brought, chilled and Preserved with spells, was cooking at the perfect temperature above the fire.
“A half-elf should not hold a servant’s place.”
“I assure you that my father has half-elven servants as well as human ones.” Harry gave the fish one more look, and then nodded, because it was done, and removed it from the fire. The jewel-bird eggs he had wrapped in leaves from his own medical supplies and buried among the embers were almost done, as well. “Elves marry for beauty and magic. They don’t always care if the person they’re marrying is royal.”
“I know that full well,” Tom snapped. He was already holding out a plate that seemed to be made of thin china with a rim of silver, and Harry held in his amusement. Yes, if he hadn’t put himself forwards to cook the dinner, they would have eaten cold food. Tom had no notion of how to take care of himself. “But princes shouldn’t be servants.”
“What, your mother never raised you on the doctrine of the prince being the servant of the land and the people, either?” Harry clucked his tongue. “How deficient she was.”
“Do not speak about my mother.”
That wasn’t Parseltongue, but it woke the shadows at the edges of the fire up anyway. Harry held Tom’s eyes as he loaded a delicate, flaky piece of fish onto his plate. “Fine. I won’t.”
Tom blinked, and the shadows retreated. Then he began to eat with a fork that seemed to be made entirely of silver, still watching Harry. Harry raised an impatient eyebrow at him, and Tom focused on the food for a moment.
“But I will speak about your father,” Tom said a moment later, as if they were continuing a conversation instead of starting a new one. “How could he suffer his son to take a servant’s part?”
Harry sighed and ate a few bites himself before he answered. “My mother had died. Our steward was in love with her, and grieved himself to death over her.”
Tom sneered. Harry shrugged. He wasn’t about to disparage someone who had always been faithful to the House of Potter, but he had to admit he privately agreed. Then again, that was another part of the reason for his resolve not to marry. He wouldn’t show the “right” kind of grief if his spouse died before him.
“The other servants didn’t know what to do. They were either running themselves ragged to care for my father, or to care for my newborn sisters and the older ones, too, or grieving in turn. I could do some of the things they needed to do, like being the voice who told various people what to cook on certain days. And after that it just—fell into place.”
“Rather conveniently for your father, it appears.”
“I was trying to be convenient to him.”
“I meant,” Tom said, leaning in to look at Harry as he removed the jewel-bird eggs from the embers, “he didn’t have to give you the place you had earned, as the prince of the family, the eldest son. He didn’t have to make you his heir because you had already made yourself his servant.”
Harry didn’t respond until he had the eggs picked out and cleaned off and safely on the plates. Then he shook his head. “Becoming his heir was never going to happen.”
“It should have. You’re competent and intelligent and beautiful. Who wouldn’t you as their heir?”
Tom’s voice had got thick on those last words, but that might be because he was eating the eggs and fish at the same time in one bite. Harry stared for a minute, then shook his head again. “You’re not thinking enough like an elf.”
“I’m a half-elf. I have no reason to share the full views of my mother’s people.”
“Then maybe I should say that you’re not thinking enough like a human enchanted by the Seelie,” Harry said gently. The narrow-eyed stare he got wasn’t the intended result of the words, but he treasured it anyway. “I was never going to be the heir because I don’t have that Blaze I told you about. No beauty, no magic. It was one reason my mother kept having children when most of the royals only have a few. She wanted to produce children who would manage to inherit the full might of her beauty. Even for a Seelie elf, you know, she shone.”
“So I heard,” said Tom, and he sounded absent. Harry hoped that might mean he wasn’t going to talk about uncomfortable subjects in detail anymore. “Did your mother die of the curse or of childbirth?”
“My father thinks the curse—”
“I wish to know what you think.”
Harry swallowed. He didn’t understand that intense gaze being aimed at him. It was too much like the way most people looked at some of his sisters. “I think it was a combination of both. My mother poured so much magic and love into us—her children, I mean. I think that the constant childbearing every two years weakened her until she couldn’t fight off the fever that overcame her after Krystal and Lobelia were born.”
Tom nodded and ate a few more bites, which let Harry relax and attend to his dinner as well. Then Tom put his plate aside and said casually, “Your parents were fools.”
Harry bared his teeth. “I’ll thank you not to speak about my mother, any more than I should about yours.”
Tom ignored him completely. Harry must not have been as intimidating as Tom had looked when Harry had mentioned Queen Merope. Then again, Harry didn’t have the serpent magic Tom did. “They were. To continue to have the queen bear child after child when they must have known it would exhaust her. To do so when the number of children would only have strengthened the curse, not weakened it.” He focused on Harry again. “Am I wrong that they continued to have children thinking sooner or later that they must have daughters without the curse?”
Harry sighed. “You’re not wrong.”
Tom nodded without changing his expression. “And fools not to see the treasure that they had in front of them.”
Harry snorted. “Yeah, because being a good steward and a good cook would really have prepared me to run a kingdom when I don’t have any glamour.”
“They sound like something I am looking for.”
Harry stared at Tom. The other man continued to lounge there and smile as if he hadn’t said something shocking.
Harry shook his head. “You said that you came to find a consort, someone who wouldn’t outshine you and would help you rule your kingdom.”
“I did say that.”
“Well, I’m not female.”
Those two simple words should not have had so much of a leer in them, Harry thought as he turned to stare at the fire. It burned on wood that Tom had also brought with him, and had clear, transparent flames as glassy as some of the streams running past their feet.
“I want someone practical,” Tom said into the silence, after Harry had decided they wouldn’t pick up the conversation from where it was lying in the middle of the clearing. “I want someone who knows magic that we can use every day, and that makes our lives easier.”
Harry shrugged. “Most of my sisters have gifts like that, especially if you like listening to music or want to be sure that you have the best-tended garden in the kingdom.”
“And how are they at leading?”
Harry smiled, feeling like he was back on familiar ground now. “Krystal and Lobelia can specifically influence people with the gift of beauty and the gift of tongues. Just be careful that you keep an eye on them and let them know that convincing a guard to donate all his wages to charity is wrong.” He’d indeed had to clear up that little mess Lobelia had made the other day.
“I don’t want someone I have to keep an eye on. I want someone who’s my equal.”
Harry stretched out on the grass and looked at Tom thoughtfully. “Then perhaps you want to look at Amaranth and Beryl. They’re free of the curse now, and they’re the closest in age to you. And they’re fairly sober and respectable.” More to the point, he knew that they didn’t have attachments at court the way a few of the others did.
“You think we won’t manage to free the others of the curse?”
“I don’t want to gamble on what could happen before it does happen.”
Tom, for some reason, clenched strands of grass in front of him and hissed out, “They didn’t know how to value you.”
“You’re not making any sense,” Harry said. He thought that he was doing the best he could, pointing Tom towards the princesses he was most likely to suit, and he had explained why he had taken the steward position and that it made sense. If nothing else, he’d thought Tom would have liked seeing another prince in a servant’s position. It would mean nothing would keep Tom from being the most high-ranking one in any room.
“What are you going to do when your sisters are freed of the curse?” Tom asked abruptly.
Harry shrugged. “Remain as steward for a few more years. Honestly, I don’t expect my father to last much longer. He didn’t marry all that young for a royal, and these years without my mother have taken a toll on him. After Lord Black comes to the throne, I’ll probably move to managing his country houses. He has properties that have been in disrepair for a while, and—”
Tom rolled over and bundled himself into the fluffy blankets he’d also brought along without saying anything.
All right, Harry thought, after blinking at him, and wrapped himself in his own blankets. It was warm, and the air of the underworld was neither particularly cold nor particularly loud. After only a few minutes, he slumped into slumber.
The music woke Harry.
He opened his eyes and lay without moving. The sound in his ears was—strange. When he’d been mostly asleep, it had sounded like the sweet, beguiling music of a lute, the kind he hadn’t heard since Fleur Delacour, the most famous wandering minstrel of the age, had come to court and stayed a month. Delphinium preferred the harp and almost never played anything else.
Now that he was awake, it sounded like a cacophony of screeches and sighs, mixed with occasional trilling notes of the kind that a bird might give. Harry twisted his head towards the sound, waiting to see if that affected it and whoever was playing, or singing, stopped.
Nothing happened except a rustle off to the side. Harry rolled and saw Tom rising to his feet, his eyes glowing.
“Tom?” Harry asked. Tom didn’t look at him but kept walking towards the noise. “Prince Thomas?”
Still no response. Tom’s legs rose and fell in that graceful glide that he’d used to take Harry through the gate into the underworld, but this time, Harry had the terrifying impression that there was no mind guiding them.
Harry shook his head, rose to his elbows and knees, and then tackled Tom in a way that was becoming a habit. Tom made no sound as he went prone under Harry, but began to mindlessly and silently fight to stand. Meanwhile, the music had changed, spiraling up towards something that sounded like a shrill flute.
“Wake up!” Harry yelled in his ear, but Tom continued to fight without seeming to notice him. His eyes, when Harry got a chance to peer into them, were blank and glazed. Harry sank an elbow hard into his side, and Tom grunted breathlessly. He kept fighting, though.
Harry rose on his knees and reached forwards, clapping his hands over Tom’s ears. For a second, the struggle continued. Then Tom dropped onto his belly, lay there motionlessly, and muttered, “What are you doing?”
Harry wasn’t about to let him go so he could hear the answer. He concentrated his magic through his fingers, and by the time Tom shook him off, he was wearing invisible earmuffs that would keep any sound from reaching him. Tom stared at Harry and made a large motion with one finger that said what he thought of this.
“Some kind of magical music,” Harry said, and the minute he muttered it aloud, he grimaced. Of course it was. Both Coral and Delphinium had the gift of music, just in different ways. He stood up, watching with narrowed eyes as the grasses in front of him shivered and parted.
Tom tugged on his trouser leg. “Why aren’t you affected by it?” he asked plainly, his voice overloud. Then he followed Harry’s gaze and fell silent again.
Harry shuddered at the sight of the two figures. Their bodies were made of what looked like a more solid version of the mist that had filled the gaps in the undead dragon’s skeleton, writhing and changing in search of some shape they could use to influence him. One cradled a lute of moss draped over bone that it strummed with spiderweb fingers, and the other held a flute of what honestly looked like frozen blood to its lips. They had vague heads and no eyes.
Tom took a deep breath behind him and said, “They’re beautiful. Let me go to them.”
Elven sight must be something else, Harry thought, and wondered for a moment what Tom was seeing. Then he put that out of his head. What he needed to worry about right now was to how to react to this.
He tackled Tom to the ground again and sat on top of him. Then he faced the figures, who had halted in front of them and were still playing their instruments. Harry took a deep, deep breath, one that seemed to fill his lungs with more air than he had ever inhaled in his life.
And then he began to sing.
The playing faltered at once. Harry wanted to grin, but he didn’t let the motion of his lips interfere with his singing. His notes sawed and scraped and screeched at the air, and he could feel Tom’s muscles tense beneath him.
“Oh, I knew a fair maiden,
And with cares she was laden!
I offered to dispense with one,
And by the light of the sun,
To her bower I was baden…”
The figure with the lute retreated a few steps. The one with the flute kept playing. Harry narrowed his eyes even as he continued to sing. So using one of his sisters’ gifts wasn’t enough, then? He would have to use both at once.
Harry rose to his knees and began to play Tom’s back with his hands as a sort of drum. Tom struggled and complained underneath him, but Harry ignored him complacently. After all, Tom wasn’t in his right mind at the moment.
The figures faltered for the first time, rather than just backing up. Harry heard a few shrill notes that skittered past his ears and into some elven part of his brain that whispered they were beautiful, not just high-pitched. Harry ignored them and continued to sing.
“And then her father opened the door,
And she scurried like she did before
To say that no one was there!
I hid underneath her hair,
Which was so long it coated the floor…”
The song in front of him faltered once more under his onslaught. Harry had never been grateful that he wasn’t musical enough to pass as a full elf, but he was now. He continued roaring, and abruptly both instruments crashed to the ground as the shapeless figures put their hands over the parts of their vague heads where their ears might have been.
Harry stood up and absently kicked Tom out of the way when he tried to grab his ankle. He walked towards the two instrumentalists, clapping his hands to keep the beat, and “singing” for all he was worth.
“But her father had a knife,
And with it he threatened—not her life,
But her beloved pet dog,
Who was snoring like a log!
And I never said I would take her to wife…”
The figures abruptly wailed and dissolved into wavering pearly mist, and two things came springing out of them, twisting and twirling in midair. Harry stepped back in case they were dangerous, continuing his clapping and his singing. When he got a better look, though, he smiled. There was one piece of coral and one shining blue delphinium flower.
Behind him, Tom said in a menacing voice, “You had better have an excellent reason for using my back as a drum.”
“Hey, it wasn’t your arse,” Harry said, and blinked. His voice was hoarse. He shrugged and turned to face Tom with a grin that didn’t seem to make much of an impression against Tom’s determined glare. “I did it because they had enchanted you with their voices, and they didn’t seem to prevail against me.”
“I could see that. I want to know why.”
Harry shook his head. “Human, remember? Less elven, less beautiful, but also less susceptible to elven glamour.”
Tom said nothing for long moments. He had obviously removed the spell that dimmed his hearing, but he just stood there, staring and silent. Harry raised an eyebrow at him and glanced back at their fire. It had gone out. He debated the wisdom of starting it again. They didn’t really need the warmth with the neutral temperature around them, and the sky had neither lightened nor darkened, meaning they didn’t need it as a source of light.
“We are both half-elves,” Tom said, and made it sound like a curse. “You should not be less susceptible than I am, or more susceptible. We should both be equally in danger or equally safe.”
Harry rolled his eyes. “Come on, my lord. You have to admit that you’ve noticed differences between half-elves in the past. Between those of Seelie and Unseelie descent. Between those who show the glamour in their faces and those who don’t.”
Tom said slowly, “I have a younger sister, Princess Amratha.”
“Yes?” Harry asked encouragingly. He recognized the name as the elven word for “nightfall.”
“She takes more after my mother. She’ll probably live longer than I will. She’s already married, but she didn’t need to, given the amount of time that she has to produce children. She met another half-elf she fell in love with, though.”
“Then you do know what I’m talking about. Some of us bond more strongly with our elven heritage, and some with our human heritage.” Harry went to the pack of food that Tom had brought along, and scowled thoughtfully at it. Tom had brought bread and hard cheese. Harry thought that he could probably make some toasted cheese sandwiches out of it if he did relight the fire. The question was whether Tom would consent to eat anything so plebian.
Harry glanced over his shoulder and found Tom standing there again. His hands reached out and rested on Harry’s shoulders, and somehow, Harry didn’t stop them from doing so. Tom was staring at him with bright, searching eyes. Harry let that happen, too, even though most of the time he got uncomfortable when people looked at him too long.
“That might be true,” Tom whispered. His voice seemed to create an atmosphere of heat and exclusivity around them, and Harry found himself breathing it in. It made him a little light-headed. “But you can be sure that I am interested in seeing your relatives value you as you deserve.”
Those were perhaps the only words that could have broken the spell at the moment. Harry moved backwards with a snort and a shake of his head. “Listen to me, my lord—”
“Not if you use that ridiculous title.”
“Fine. Tom. My family didn’t demote me, or ridicule me. I willingly put myself in the place where I would do the most good. I want to be useful, and because I do lack the usual elven gifts, I couldn’t do it by being a diplomat or a ruler. Will you understand that I took the place that was open to me and I enjoy it?”
Tom watched him with a motionless face now. Then he said, “No.”
“I will not understand it. If you took that place out of enjoyment, you would display some pride in what you can do. Not this constant self-deprecation and claims that your sisters have more useful magic than you do.” Tom paused. “There is another thing.”
“Yes?” Harry started to dig out the bread and cheese, deciding that he was going to eat himself no matter what decision Tom made in the next few minutes.
“You’ve saved my life twice now.”
“How quickly you forget the dragonfire.” Tom’s voice grew slowly warmer and quicker. “I do not.”
Harry shrugged, keeping his eyes on the food in his hands. He was uncomfortably aware of the eyes brushing him, and the hand that touched his shoulder with more regularity than was needed as they packed after breakfast, and the way that Tom tried to talk to him as they ambled along towards the distant hills, as if actually interested in his opinions.
Elven magic flowed through the saving of the lives and tied together the savior and the one saved. That was only natural, when elves could live so long and the person who saved them would be rescuing decades and centuries, not only years.
Harry wasn’t sure that the effect would be so powerful when both the savior and the one saved were half-elves, but from the restless flame in Tom’s eyes, it might be.
And the thought only made his mind heavier. He didn’t want a connection that existed because of elven magic and not because of both people’s fair choice.
Neither did he want to somehow “steal” the prince from his sisters, who had the native magic and beauty to attract the attention of someone like Prince Thomas Slytherin and hold it.
Harry set his mind firmly on the breaking of the curse. That was the only thing he had to look forward to right now.
Tom’s hand brushed his shoulder again. Harry shivered and ignored it.
“I don’t know what that is.”
“Neither do I,” Harry said, and then shrugged when Tom glared at him. “Well, I thought you were going to ask if I did any second. You have to admit that you’ve asked for my opinion on everything else.”
Tom turned and studied what was in front of them again instead of speaking, so Harry decided to study it with him. “That” was an enormous tree, or rather the shadowy silver figure of one, looming into the air higher than the blue hills. The problem was that it appeared to have nothing to do with the ground. The roots unfolded and stretched out in rippling curls far above the earth. Harry didn’t know if they could have fit under the grass that passed for soil in the elven underworld anyway. The branches drooped high above them, and seemed to be studded with the diamond outlines of leaves.
“Perhaps we do not need to know what it is,” Tom murmured after yet more study. “Perhaps it has nothing to do with our quest.”
Harry eyed him. “You don’t believe that.”
“I do not.” Tom’s smile darted across his face like the slash of a blade. “But it is true that I see no obvious connection.”
“I do.” Harry nodded to the nearest branch, which hung a good distance above their heads, and the outlines of the leaves upon it. “See how those leaves look more tattered than the rest of them? Well, the next set of twins to be born after Coral and Delphinium, whose gift is music, were Emerald and Flora, and their gift is healing.”
“So we’re supposed to—heal the tree?”
“It’s possible.” Harry kept his voice absent because his eyes were still scanning. Emerald’s gift was healing plants, but so far, the means of freeing a set of twins had been pretty close together. There ought to be an animal that would match Flora’s healing gift.
He made it out at last, a shadowy form in the exact center of the tree’s trunk where the great branches divided. It was a peregrine, at least if one accepted that falcons could stretch to giant proportions, and a peregrine was the animal Flora had been healing the day before he and Tom left. He nodded. “I think we’ll need to heal both of them.”
“Fine.” Tom turned to him with his arms crossed. “Do you have any suggestion for how to reach them?”
Harry ignored Tom’s impatience for a few minutes, studying the roots of the tree. No help there, it seemed. The roots ended far above the grass—
But not above the other trees, Harry realized after a moment. He hadn’t seen them, truly hadn’t seen them, because the tree in the sky was so overwhelming that it had made him ignore them. But there were other trees here, a slender silver forest, more substantial than the great one, and their branches towered to within a few feet of the roots.
“We’ll have to climb one of those trees,” Harry murmured, nodding to the forest.
“And how do you think we are going to clear the last space between the roots and the top of the tree? I haven’t brought any magic that would allow me to fly.”
Harry shrugged. “I haven’t, either, but there must be a way to overcome this. You told me that no curse would come without a way to break it.” Elves seemed to like that better, the same way they liked marrying people for their beauty and magic rather than their personalities. Harry was growing thoughtful about how much lately he had been glad that he wasn’t an elf, after long years of wishing he was more like one.
Tom broke in on his musings. “So we climb and then…what? Jump?”
Harry watched the shadowy falcon stretch its wings and shift from one foot to another, and smiled. “Maybe not.”
“I want you to know that this is beneath the dignity of a prince.”
“That’s why I’m the one climbing ahead of you. Yes, Tom, I understand that.”
“You shouldn’t be doing this, either.”
Harry only rolled his eyes and eyed the distance ahead of him. Pine branches crackled beneath his hand. Despite looking so ethereal, the silver forest had turned out to be almost distressingly real, sticking his palms full of splinters and making bark slip under his feet.
And there was still an insurmountable distance between the top of the tree where Harry crouched and the roots. The falcon was out of sight now, the branches of the hovering tree intervening, but Harry didn’t care. He had a plan to change that.
“Why are you doing this when you’re a prince?”
“Steward,” Harry murmured, casting his mind back to the mews at home.
“It infuriates me when you say that.”
“Hold your tongue,” Harry snapped back, and Tom did, maybe because no one else had ever told him that before. Harry took a deep breath, called all his memory into his lungs, and screeched like a peregrine falcon.
There was a shifting of wings above them.
“You are mad,” Tom hissed. Hopefully not loudly enough to alert the falcon, though, Harry thought dispassionately.
“And proud of it,” Harry agreed, then screamed again.
The gigantic beak eased over the side of the branch, and the falcon stared down at them. Harry stared back. Looking into eyes larger than his head was an experience, but on the other hand, this was no worse than meeting the predatory gazes of the hawks in the mews, who would have hunted him if they were big enough. Harry screamed one more time, and the falcon extended a talon towards him.
Awkwardly, Harry saw, and felt a surge of victory, knowing that he had guessed correctly. The bird was injured. It seemed to have a dangling wing, and as its claws curled around Harry—and then Tom—and lifted them up, Harry saw some kind of festering wound on the other leg as well.
“You are mad,” Tom kept repeating behind him, in a dull voice. “It’s going to kill us.”
“It’s not squeezing hard enough to hurt us, and peregrines usually kill after a dive,” Harry disagreed, and smiled up at the falcon as it set them down on the branch beside it. “Now. I hope you can hear me,” he added, raising his voice a little. “Can I help you with that wing?”
The falcon stared at him, tilting its head slowly in an inquisitive direction. Harry kept up the mild smile on his face, and repeated the request when he thought it might be fading from the falcon’s brain. Then the peregrine gave a soft, almost sleepy noise, and extended its wing so that it was resting on the branch between them.
“Thank you!” Harry called, and bent close to examine the wound. It did seem to be a snapped bone—a bad injury, but if he could heal it cleanly the way Flora would have healed the smaller bird’s wing, then there should be no problem with the falcon flying again. The festering wound on its leg would be more of a problem.
“What do you expect me to do?” Tom’s voice was cool.
“Oh, you could lean out and get a look at the leaves of the tree,” Harry said. “I know less about plants than animals.”
Tom drew in a deep breath that sounded as if it was shaking him all through. Then he nodded and walked towards the farthest branches of the tree, which curled out like roads. Harry, meanwhile, settled himself with his hands over the wound.
He would have to use a human spell, since he had none of the native elven magical talent that let Flora heal animals. He murmured, “Episkey,” concentrating with all his strength.
The falcon screeched and tore its wing away from him. Harry hissed and rolled, clinging to the branch with both knees. This wasn’t the first time he’d had to do something like this, sadly. He’d once hung for thirty minutes from a rafter while the bucking horse beneath him worse himself out.
“I’m all right,” Harry called back to Tom. The falcon was between them and he couldn’t see Tom at the moment, but he concentrated on making his voice reassuring. The bird shifted and stared, and Harry looked towards the wing, which had dipped back down towards him when the falcon evidently decided against taking off.
There was no longer a wound in the feathers, and the bone looked whole. Harry caught his breath and looked up towards the falcon. “Would you let me heal your leg?” he whispered.
“Honestly, you sound as though you’re asking for a favor,” Tom muttered. He must have good hearing, since Harry was surprised the falcon had heard him. But with his eyes fixed on immense golden ones, he had no time to spare for thoughts about Tom.
The falcon slowly extended the leg, watching him all the while. Harry drew a deep breath and climbed over claws that looked as big as tree roots—well, ordinary tree roots, not the ones humping through the sky around him right now—and bent down to consider the wound. This one looked like a bite, or like someone had thrown very precise shards of glass at the falcon. Harry frowned as he wondered about the cause, but then shrugged. Either he could heal it or he couldn’t, but he didn’t need to sit around wondering.
“Thank you,” he told the falcon softly. He held out his hands again, this time hovering over the wound, and said, “Episkey!”
The falcon didn’t jerk and scream like before, but this time it was obvious that it was because the wound hadn’t been healed. Harry scowled and bent closer, ignoring the way Tom snarled his name. Well, perhaps one or two of the jagged holes on the very edge of the injury had closed, but no more than that.
“I think we’ll probably have to work in concert,” Harry said, standing back and scowling at the wound. “Heal the leaves and heal the falcon at the same time.”
“Fine,” Tom said, his voice unexpectedly close and so sharp that Harry started and nearly fell from the tree branch. “Now get away from that thing.”
Harry had long known that animals were more sensitive to elven and human moods than others believed, and he had it proven again when the falcon screeched at Tom and leaned close, wings slightly spread and beak gaping. Tom, who had been picking his way around behind the falcon’s tail, froze. Harry sighed, grabbed his arm, murmured, “Forgive us,” to the falcon, and tugged Tom over to stand next to him.
“Stop irritating the giant bird that sits right next to you and holds your life in its talons,” he hissed.
“I was concerned about you.” Tom sounded choked as he stared at the claws that had slammed down right next to his head.
“Then be concerned about me from over here.” Harry hesitated. “I need your help. I only know the one healing spell, and it’s not working on this second wound, and it won’t work at all on plants.”
Tom took a step towards him, eyes fixed on him in that way that made the air around him seem to heat up again. Harry licked his lips and did his best to ignore the sensation. They weren’t alone right now; they had a huge falcon looming over them. “What did you say you need from me, Harry?”
There was nothing for it. Harry gritted his teeth and muttered, “Your help.”
“That’s what I thought you said. And it should be possible because there are the life-debts between us to make a conduit for potentially incompatible magic.” Tom stepped behind him, letting his hands rest on Harry’s shoulders in a way that made Harry shiver. He felt them there and not there at the same time. “Not that I think we’ll have a problem with that.”
“Problem with what?”
He received an answer, but not in words. Tom closed his eyes and hummed softly to himself, then sang a high-pitched note. At the same moment, Harry felt something within him throb and respond to the note like an echo.
“There you are,” Tom whispered, his head near Harry’s neck, making Harry long to move and stretch. “Follow my lead.”
Again Harry wanted to ask a question, but this time, the low note sang to him, and even though he had no good experience with music or gift for it, Harry found himself singing back. It wasn’t with his voice. It was with blood and bone and the hands that he found clasped beneath Tom’s and the sudden spiral of awareness that spread out from them, up and towards the distant sky and the screams of far birds and the edges of the blue hills.
Hills and sky and birds…all of it was, in some sense, a pattern stitched on emptiness. Harry and Tom, their awareness flowing into each other’s, understood and accepted that. For Tom, it was an old realization come to new life. For Harry, it was a revelation. He had known he wasn’t good at magic and he had thought of it as something completely distant and separate from himself.
Now he knew he could do any magic that he wanted as long as he could rearrange the patterns.
In front of them were particular stitches that they wished would be different. Harry and Tom surveyed the wound on the falcon’s leg, and saw it as a disruption in the neat pattern of a weaving—perhaps a place where someone had tugged all the sewing out in a particularly violent manner. That would not do. But they would have to do the reweaving at the same time as another trailing pattern of stitches, which marked the place where the giant tree’s leaves were becoming unraveled.
However, it was not impossible for them, merely a stretch for their strength. They reached out together, and the power rose from the depths of their souls, which were woven from the same loom of magic and insight that everything around them was. They were partially different, but partially not. They belonged here, and they sang notes that were true and cast power that was more than power as they altered the weaving.
The falcon made a low, surprised sound as the wound in its leg began to knit. The tree swayed as its leaves were created anew. And that was what it was: true silver, true gold, true leaf, true talon, spun out of air and applied. Not picking up the dangling threads, because that would be a task for a lesser being of lesser strength, but renewing.
There were no words for the song that ran through them, or the note as the threads rang into place. It was more, it was sweeter, than any note Harry had hoped to sing in his lifetime.
Suddenly he was Harry again, breathing separately from Tom, and aware of his body as a thing that existed, holding hands and bones and trembling, exhausted muscles. He swallowed and forbore from leaning back against Tom, even though he wanted to. That last, joined memory of strength was gone beyond recall and actually unweaving itself in his memory, he thought. There would be no way that he could comprehend it as he had when he’d lived it.
But at least he had lived it. There was that. And the falcon was spreading its wings with a joyous cry, and the silver leaves tossing in the breeze had a sense of joy to their movement, as well.
The falcon reached under a wing and picked up something that Harry worried, for a second, was a gigantic internal organ from some past meal, it was so green. But then he realized it was a dangling emerald, ornamented in silver with a curling design of flowers. He touched it, and it bounced once in his hand, then softly dissolved into air.
Emerald and Flora were free.
Harry turned to Tom, ready to say that he thought the falcon would bear them back to the ground if they asked politely, but the words froze in his throat at the expression on Tom’s face. And the gentle but inexorable way that Tom backed him up against a crook of a branch, something as big as the trunk of any tree on the ground.
“Your magic,” Tom murmured, and brushed the back of his hand down the air alongside Harry’s cheek. It made Harry jump. The sensation was almost but not quite too much, like being tickled, even though Tom made no contact with his skin. “I’ve never felt someone blend like that with me, so strong, so radiant. I want…”
“Whatever you want, we can discuss it on the ground,” Harry interrupted. His heart was hammering so fast for a moment that he wondered madly if the falcon might mistake him for a mouse and attack him.
“I have so much to say to you,” Tom said. “But for right now, this will do.”
He leaned forwards and sealed his lips over Harry’s.
Harry gasped. The sensation pouring into him was exactly like being tickled with a kiss, and he found himself arching his back, the scrape of the bark against his skin not like bark either, and Tom’s hands overwhelming as they fastened on either side of his throat, and his head spinning, and his sight narrowing, and Tom’s eyes filling up the world…
Harry closed his hands hard over Tom’s wrists and wrenched them away. The world returned, but swaying and dizzy, and Harry didn’t think that was all caused by standing on a tree branch. Harry glanced away, gulping air.
“You know what I want,” Tom said, his voice dark, compelling. Harry remembered how they had been joined together when weaving the magic and closed his eyes.
He had never regretted his own decision not to marry, because it had seemed so impossible. Everything that someone noble or elven valued—beauty, magic, power, intelligence, political competence—he didn’t have. If he had been a servant born, it would have been different, and Harry could have had a happy life with a man or woman who valued skill with animals and cooking and conversation and laughter.
It was wrenching, a jolt, to realize that he had come up against someone who actually did value his magic. Or at least the magic that they had in common.
Harry swallowed. “Give me time to think.”
“You need time to think? Truly?” Tom asked, and his voice would have told Harry of the thunder of his need even if his hands didn’t.
“Yes, because this is nothing like I thought I would ever run into!” Harry snapped back. He had a little of his mental balance now, not least because he was holding Tom’s hands away from him. The hands seemed to be the conduit for the magic that had thrown him so far off-balance, maybe because that was the way Tom had touched him when they blended their magic to weave the talons and the leaves anew. “And you might still change your mind. You might sleep with me now and then choose one of my sisters as your consort.”
“And sleeping with me now would be so bad?”
Harry hesitated. It really, really wouldn’t, said the tide of his blood and the warmth in his cheeks and the sweetness in his mouth and the spinning in his head. He hadn’t thought of it before, because, well, two royals generally didn’t unless it would be a permanent arrangement. Casual liaisons involved servants or soldiers.
“Harry?” Tom was brushing his hand directly across his cheek now, which wasn’t as intense as it had been but was still pretty incredible.
Harry hesitated one more time. Then he thought, We’re the only ones here, and who else is going to know? We’re the only ones who could tell them. We’re—
Tom licked the corner of his mouth, and Harry gasped and knew the battle was lost. He swallowed and nodded. He reached out and held Tom’s forearms for a moment, making him be still and catching his eyes.
“If you decide at any point that you don’t want this because of who I am, then you need to tell me,” Harry said, clearly and distinctly.
Tom nodded at once, although from the small smile playing on his lips, Harry didn’t think he would back away. Harry turned to ask the falcon to carry them to the ground.
Meanwhile, he was aware, all too aware, of the simmering heat at his back, and the hand that gently roamed down his chest.
I want him so much. And surely it’s not wrong if it’s just once.
“Eager, aren’t you?”
The dark tone in Tom’s voice made Harry catch his breath, but also made him pull up. The falcon had transported them to the other side of the forest, into a wide “meadow” of silver, spiky grass. Given the thickness of the blankets that Tom had brought, Harry wasn’t really worried about sleeping on it.
But he was concerned about other things. He turned his head back over his shoulder and watched Tom with a steady gaze. Tom paused when he saw it.
“If you’re here to mock me for my lack of experience or anything like that,” Harry said, “then we’re not going to do this.”
“You misunderstand me.” Tom stepped up behind him and leaned down to kiss the join of his neck and his shoulder. Harry caught his breath with a delight that he thought a second later he shouldn’t have showed, but Tom’s voice still seemed sincere. “I am delighted with your forthrightness. There are too many games in most courts where people play with me and hint that they want certain things, only to retract them later and mock me for having paid attention to them or believed them. With you, I can believe in what you say. That is a relief for me. And makes you even more desirable.” His hands rose and smoothed down Harry’s shoulders in that tantalizing touch again. “And proves what fools the people in your father’s court were, not to try and fight harder for you, but also allows me to do whatever I wish, so I cannot hold it too much against them.”
“You—ah.” The sensation shot straight to Harry’s groin as Tom’s fingers slid up the side of his throat. “It would help if you could stop mocking the people in my father’s court, too,” he moaned, tossing his head back as Tom’s fingers worked their way across his muscles in a torturous massage that only aroused him more.
“No. They should have known what a treasure they had,” Tom whispered, and planted a sucking kiss where his mouth had been before.
Harry turned around to claim Tom’s mouth and return the kiss with interest. Tom cupped Harry between his legs, and Harry waved a hand without thinking about it, a human spell trotting out on the air.
Tom drew back with a lifted eyebrow as the blankets flew out of their packs and arranged themselves on the grass. Harry realized he was blushing. “I—”
Tom’s kiss stopped the protest or the explanation or the apology, whatever it would have been; Harry honestly wasn’t sure himself. Then Tom was untucking Harry’s tunic, and Harry hissed and reached for Tom’s trousers.
Tom was slender and covered with lean muscle in the way that the best elves were, but not as fragile-looking as most male elves Harry had seen. His gaze was even more intense when Harry could see his hard cock, it seemed. Harry shuddered a little and did his best not to think about what Tom was seeing when he gazed at Harry.
Whatever it was, Tom didn’t seem to mind it. He reached out and let one finger linger on the tip of Harry’s own erection, and Harry closed his eyes.
“Wet,” Tom said, and that was the only word as he once again took Harry’s shoulders in his hands and walked him backwards to lie down on the blankets.
Tom had some kind of oil on his hands when he touched Harry again, this time on his arse. Harry parted his legs while silently biting his lip. He wasn’t ignorant of what two men did in bed together—he had walked unwillingly into rooms where two of the guards were fucking each other before—but this would be his first time.
“Hush,” Tom said. Harry glanced up and found himself unable to turn away from Tom’s eyes, blazing now like the hills of the underworld with sunlight on them. “I will treat you as gently as you could wish. I promise. Do you think I never want to sleep with you again?”
Harry opened his mouth to ask what one thing had to do with the other, and then Tom’s fingers dipped into him. Harry gasped and seemed to float on the gasp until Tom stroked his hip with that same intense, tickling touch.
“Breathe,” Tom said, and Harry managed, and focused on the incredibly strange sensation of fingers inside him without panicking.
Tom added a third soon enough, and a fourth. Any protests that Harry might have had died on his tongue when he saw the way Tom was watching him. The hunger was enough to steal his breath. It was just so unlike any way that he’d ever thought someone would look at him.
“There,” Tom said, and his voice flowed like soft, hypnotic water over Harry. “The oil has calming and pain-killing properties as well, and I think you’re ready to have me inside you, Harry.”
“I want to feel that connection again,” Harry said. He was talking about the connection they’d had when their magic blended, but he didn’t think he could put it into words right now, and not just because he was breathless with longing.
“Yes,” Tom said, seeming to understand what he meant without words, and slid into him.
Harry had always thought, if this ever happened for him, that he would close his eyes and just savor the pleasure while floating in darkness. But he found it impossible to close his eyes or turn away from Tom. Tom was gripping Harry’s hands now, their fingers entwined as if they were wrestling, his eyes as locked on Harry’s face as Harry’s were on his. His lips were slightly parted and his face shining. Harry got lost in the rocking motion of their hips that seemed to carry him out on a sea of heat and pleasure, but he never looked away from Tom.
Tom’s lips curled in a slow, smug smile as he kept up the rocking, and he altered the angle of his hips a little. Harry gasped, blinked, but continued to look.
“You can’t turn away, are you?” Tom lowered his head a little, shifting the angle again and sending a flare of sensation so deep up Harry’s body that he felt as if he had fallen into golden sunlight. “What an interesting revelation.”
“W-well—enjoy it,” Harry said, and he moaned as he Tom freed one hand and reached down to stroke his cock, although how he managed to find it between their seemingly joined bodies was the question.
“Oh, I am,” Tom said, and the purring tone was back in his voice. Harry wanted to close his eyes because otherwise he was going to thoroughly embarrass himself, but somehow they stayed open.
And somehow he didn’t embarrass himself, despite the hand stroking and smoothing and pulling, again and again, up and over and around him. He could feel his eyes rolling back in his head, and he hissed in response to it. But Tom’s face always floated in front of his eyes.
“When my mother told me to get married,” Tom breathed, from somewhere that had to be full of air for him to talk in coherent sentences, “I told her I was only going to choose someone who could be as devoted as I was.”
Harry rescued his voice from wherever it had gone. “Devoted to—what? Fucking?”
Tom rewarded, or punished, him with a long, curling stroke for that. Harry moaned again.
“No,” Tom said. “Someone who could be as devoted to me as I was to her. Someone who could meet and match me and equal me in magic and intelligence and beauty and all the rest of it.”
“Modesty, too,” said Harry, unable to help it, and Tom’s fingers spread and snaked under his cock’s head and did something unspeakable and wonderful.
“You’re going to come for me,” Tom said, his smile languid and completely contradicted by the sharp, jabbing motions of his hips. “With me. When I say.”
“No,” Harry countered. It was the only thing he had the strength to say right now. Stars were bursting in front of his eyes, and his lungs were laboring as if they were going to burst out of his chest. Where did Tom get the breath for it all?
“I think you are,” Tom said, and the self-confidence was unshakeable, and so was the gloating way he smiled.
Harry didn’t bother responding, being too involved in meeting Tom’s thrusts with his own, as much as he could on his back, and squeezing down with his inner muscles. That was another wonderful thing he’d never known about, a thing he could do.
He watched Tom’s face change and wondered for a moment what he would do when this was over and done with and he would never have it again—
But in the meantime, there was this, and this was now, and Harry clamped down and saw Tom’s breath stutter, his head bow so that he was the first one to break their joined gazes, after all. Some part of Harry that he hadn’t even realized was there rejoiced.
“Come for me,” Tom said, and his fingers touched and slid and coated Harry with his own wetness.
Harry surrendered without knowing it was going to happen, thrusting up and freezing in place for a second, and then flooding Tom’s hand helplessly, crying out under his breath, rotating his hips in a desperate search for more sensation. Tom hissed him through it, saying things in Parseltongue that were probably just as gloating as all the rest.
Harry didn’t care, though. Not when he felt so good, and not when Tom sat back and shook his hair out of his eyes and smiled and Harry squeezed down on him without warning.
Tom came, too, choking on air with his eyes as wide as suns. Harry gave him a smug smile and then rolled over on the blankets and sighed a little. Already a comfortable tiredness was creeping over him. He had heard that conversations after sex were always uncomfortable, but at least this way, maybe he could avoid it, and when he woke, things would be back to normal.
“I want you,” Tom said into his ear.
“Again? Already?” Harry managed to lift an eyelid, but that was only by taking it in his fingers and levering it up.
But then the sleep Harry had been anticipating came along, and made everything more comfortable than it had been.
“Lie still, Harry.”
Harry opened his eyes slowly. He was lying on a pile of blankets with Tom’s arms around him, for some reason. Not that he had forgotten what they’d done before he fell asleep, but he’d assumed Tom would have gone to make his own blanket pile by now.
“Why?” Harry asked softly, darting his eyes around. He saw at least one problem before Tom answered, and grimaced. Of course he shouldn’t have assumed the elven underworld would have left them where they were.
“We’ve moved into a large—dome, that’s the only thing I can say.” Tom’s arms tightened around his waist until it was painful. “And we’re on a bridge over a sea that’s rising steadily. And there’s fires burning at the ends of the bridge.”
Harry lifted his head then, as soon as Tom seemed to be reassured that he wouldn’t simply roll out of the makeshift bed. Tom’s hands slid absently down his back. Harry managed to ignore them as he stared at the enormous dome overhead, but it was difficult.
The inside of the dome seemed to be made of a single gigantic sapphire. Maybe the inside of a sapphire carved into an egg, Harry thought, looking up at the curve overhead. The inside was hollow, of course, with shining silver bridges that seemed to be made of spidersilk arching and stretching over it. Beneath them snarled a sea of what looked uncomfortably like molten silver.
And the sea was rising.
Harry glanced at the fires burning at the ends of the bridges. They appeared identical at first, red flames rising and entwining, bonfires built on nothing. The bridge Tom and Harry were on joined up with other bridges, and the fires squatted at each crossroads. The largest bridge rose steadily as a unicorn’s back towards what looked like a crack in the dome, and light was there.
Harry concentrated on the fire that blocked their way to it. And after a moment, he nodded. Yes, there was a gleam of gold about those flames that was familiar.
It ought to be, after he had watched Hyacinth use it for years.
Harry took a deep breath and shifted in Tom’s hold. Tom let him go with a small frown. Harry hated the way his heart bounded at the sight of that frown, and he had to ignore it firmly as he stood up and began to put on his clothing that was folded neatly at the edge of the blankets. Tom was already dressed, which made it all the stranger that he’d gone back to holding Harry’s naked, sweaty body.
“I know which way we have to go,” Harry said, and nodded at the golden fire. Or the fires, as he realized now that he was standing up and could see them more clearly. There was a red fire burning right in front of the golden one, while the flames at the other end of the bridge held only scarlet hues. “This way.”
“We’ll die if we walk through fire.” Tom’s voice was flat, in the kind of way that Harry already knew was meant to hold emotions back and keep them from escaping.
“No. Do you see that there are two fires? We have to go through them back-to-back. And unless I’m wrong,” Harry said, reaching back to wrap his hand around Tom’s arm, “this is also the key to breaking Garnet and Hyacinth free of the curse.”
Tom stared at him blankly. Harry rolled his eyes. “They’re both gifted with fire magic, or have you forgotten?”
“I had not forgotten.”
This time, the flat voice had failed Tom. Harry could hear the shiver that edged his words, and saw the way that he stared at the flames more often than the molten silver sea that surged slowly up the walls of the dome. Harry blinked. “Are you—afraid of fire?” Tom hadn’t reacted that way when the dragon breathed flames.
“Bonfires,” Tom whispered. “Like the one that my father died in.”
Harry nodded, although he hadn’t actually known that particular story. “Come with me,” he said. “I promise that it’ll be fine.” He had to tug again when Tom’s feet seemed frozen, but after a long moment, Tom took a breath and followed him.
They raced up the silver bridge towards the twin fires, and Harry heard a creak and a rumble behind him that might have been the silver sea rising further. He knew he didn’t imagine the sound of flames crackling at their backs, not with Tom almost trampling him down. The fire on the other end of the bridge had started to burn it up behind them the moment they made their decision.
This is a curse, Harry told himself. The hard part of this is going to be overcoming Tom’s fear, getting him to trust me.
They reached the twin fires, and Tom’s feet set again behind him. Harry turned towards him. “It is dangerous, and it will hurt,” he said quietly. “I won’t lie to you about that. But if you come with me…”
“Then I’ll get to experience the pain?” Tom was watching the scarlet fire more than he was Harry, as if he could see nothing else in the world.
Harry reached out, cradled Tom’s face beneath both hands, and gently turned him so that Tom was looking only at him. “You’ll get to experience renewal, too,” he promised, and kissed him gently. He saw Tom’s eyes widen, maybe because Harry had put more than passion or magic into the kiss.
And, well, that was his own problem, wasn’t it? They would be near the end of the quest once they had freed Garnet and Hyacinth from the curse, and what Harry might feel or not feel was his own affair.
He turned to face the scarlet fire, ignoring for a moment the rumble of the silver sea beneath him and Tom’s sharpened stare on his back.
Harry braced himself to accept the pain, and then sprang straight into the heart of the bonfire.
He shrieked, a sound torn from his throat without his permission. The pain was like teeth closing on every part of his body at once, and his shirt was on fire, and his hair, and he was losing his eyes, they would melt like jelly down his cheeks—
Harry forced himself to keep moving, feet rising and falling in ways that he knew he would probably never be able to duplicate again, and then he jumped, and there was a different kind of flame around him, yellow and soft and welcoming. Harry gasped and stretched his hands out. This was like being bathed with cool water, and every touch brought more than coolness.
It brought healing. It brought renewal.
Harry watched in wonder as the skin that had scorched came blossoming back, running up his arms like growing vines. It was softer and firmer than any of his skin had ever been, and he noticed a few old scars that were missing. His clothes were growing back, too, and the fabric was rich silk, rippling in the slight air that seemed to be blowing down from the crack in the dome as though it was made of some material even lighter. Harry looked up and laughed and blinked, and the slight imperfections were gone from his sight.
The second fire was Hyacinth’s phoenix flame. Harry knew he had recognized it. And only someone who had passed through the withering power of Garnet’s gift to get here would be able to embrace it.
Harry turned back, wondering if he would need to call to Tom across the flames to encourage him, and found him stumbling out of the phoenix fire, staring at his hands. Harry laughed again and caught him close, thinking that the elven glamour shone through Tom’s features more strongly than ever before. His skin was as clear as glass, his eyes blazing like the indigo hills lit on fire.
He was beautiful. And, for the moment, he stood as docilely in Harry’s embrace as if he was Harry’s in truth.
That didn’t last, of course. Tom staggered backwards and stared at Harry. Then he reached forwards, grabbed his arms, shook them, and snapped, “What in the world were you thinking, you madman?”
“That we freed two more of my sisters?” Harry nodded back over Tom’s shoulder, although it had become difficult to take his eyes from the man he’d slept with. The other prince. His future brother-in-law.
Make yourself accustomed to those titles now, Harry told himself, and it will hurt less later.
Tom turned around, although Harry noticed that he kept his tight hold on Harry’s arms while he did it, just reversing which hand held which grip. He stared in silence at the garnet gem cradled in the middle of the hyacinth flower that was growing where the fires had been.
And as he kept staring, the dome and the bridges and the silver sea all dissolved around them. Harry blinked. They were standing on a green hill in the middle of what seemed to the indigo range he had glimpsed from afar, a breeze blowing around them that whispered and hissed in their hair.
For some reason, Tom tensed further. Harry frowned at him. “What is it?” he asked. “We freed Garnet and Hyacinth. We’re almost done with this quest. I thought you’d be happy.”
You slept with me. Harry bit back the words. They had no place in this conversation, not right now.
“Did you hear the breeze?” Tom asked, turning around. His grip on Harry’s arm had become painful, but Harry didn’t think it was the best moment to mention it.
“Yes, of course.”
“It was speaking.” Tom’s eyes were furiously searching the horizon, which only showed more hills, as well as the darkened slopes around them. “In Parseltongue—”
“Hello, my son,” said a cold voice from behind them.
Tom’s shoulders slumped for a moment, but he lifted his chin as he turned to face the top of the hill. “Hello, Mother.”
“Mother?” Harry stared at the dark-haired woman on the slope of the hill. Of course she was an elf, and of course she was Unseelie. The sharply pointed ears and the face that looked as if it had been pointed, too, and the dark green hair that rustled and clacked like scales confirmed it. She had eyes the color of the hills of the underworld, Tom’s eyes.
But it made no sense to Harry that she would be standing here. What investment would Queen Merope of the House of Slytherin have in their quest to break the curse?
Unless her investment isn’t in that, Harry thought as he watched the way she watched Tom. Unless it’s that she wants him to choose the right consort, the one that she would have encouraged…
But even then, Harry would have expected her to appear at the end of the quest. Why here? The princesses weren’t even all free yet, and Tom might find a respectable bride in one of the four youngest.
“Yes,” said the woman, breaking into Harry’s thoughts. “A queen. And mother of a prince who will learn how to be a king.” She took a step forwards, her hair shimmering like glass for a moment, the way her dress did. “And you have still not learned the lessons I set you to learn. Have you, Tom?’
“I’m not a child anymore, Mother.” Tom’s voice was a croak, nothing like the confident tone Harry was so used to hearing from him, but he had straightened his shoulders and was staring at Queen Merope with a defiant tilt of his chin. “I’m not someone you can punish simply because I think differently from you.”
“Oh, my son,” Queen Merope said, her smile widening a little. Her teeth shone with what seemed to be reflected light from the hills. “That is not the reason I came to punish you.” She took another step nearer.
Tom seemed entirely unnerved, and certainly not ready to defy his mother. Harry moved between them. “Why, then?” he asked, playing for time while his eyes scanned the horizon for some sign of the next part of the quest approaching. Even that would be a welcome distraction right now. But the horizon was still only hill piled on hill, each exactly like the others. “Why are you here?”
“To teach the lessons.” Queen Merope hadn’t removed her eyes from Tom. “You need not interfere, Prince Harry of the House of Potter.” She spat the human name as if it burned her mouth. “You have come this far, and I’m certain that you’re capable of overcoming the remaining challenges on your own, aren’t you? It’s not as though Tom has really helped you.”
“Tom has been a great help,” Harry said fiercely. He had the impression that he had been meant to move aside with each step the queen took, but he remained in place. “I never would have healed the tree and the falcon if not for him.”
“And the fires? Who came up with the idea to pass through the flames? That was your idea. And your courage.”
“Tom still walked through them. I know that he wouldn’t have if he was alone, but that didn’t matter. He reached down inside himself and found the courage!”
Queen Merope flicked her fingers. Harry gasped. It felt as though a heavy iron plate had suddenly smacked him across the face.
“You have no right to interfere in the way I discipline my son,” the queen said, indifferently, and faced Tom. “Come here, son. You know what price has to be paid when you have displeased me.”
Tom moved forwards, his jaw down and a blank light in his eyes. Harry grabbed hold of his arm and dragged him to a standstill.
“You would interfere in this?” The queen turned to face Harry. Her eyes had acquired a glassy tint themselves, as if she was imagining some of the things that she could do to Tom. “This is a royal family affair, and an Unseelie affair. Neither of which you are.”
“I’m a prince, and I can tell you that—”
Harry had been about to say something about the way that his parents had disciplined their children, but the queen shook her head. “You do not get to claim one name and position when Tom is courting you, and then deny them now,” she whispered. “You know you are a servant. You have made yourself a good one. But the servant obeys the queen and prince. You know that.”
Harry shivered. Yes, he knew that. How could he have forgotten? He was a steward, and he obeyed his father’s orders—
His father’s orders. But his father wasn’t here, was he? And there was something amiss, Harry was certain of that, whatever the interactions between the queen and her son might be like in private.
Tom didn’t stand there like a blithering idiot while other people discussed his fate. That was more wrong to Harry than the thought of playing himself up as a prince now.
He shook his head and took a long step forwards. “I’m a prince even if I don’t always claim the title,” he said. His voice was hoarse, which made Harry wonder if he had stood a longer time there under the queen’s enchantment than he knew. “And I know that you wouldn’t treat the son who’s the heir to your throne this way.”
“I also have a daughter, Princess Amratha. Tom may have told you of her. She is more beautiful, more elven. She will certainly make a better ruler for the kingdom than someone who associates with people like you.”
Harry clenched his hands, refusing to back down, and said, “He told me about her. He never said that he thought she was better than him. Just more elven.”
“That equates to better, you stupid boy.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Harry said, and managed to smile as he thought about the wayTom would react to those words if he was acting like himself. “Tom would never think that someone was better than he was.”
The queen stared at him in silence. Harry stared back, not daring to take his eyes from her, although he wanted badly to glance at Tom and see if he was waking up at all. This was a dangerous opponent.
Or punishment? Had the queen died in the time Tom had been away from home and the underworld had brought her spirit forth to punish him?
Harry frowned. No, the more he thought about it, the less he thought it would be that way. Everything he had heard about the elven underworld said it didn’t work like the human underworld, which punished and tormented the souls of the pitiful dead who wandered there. Instead, the elven underworld acted more like a labyrinth constructed out of the souls of those who ventured there.
A labyrinth made of souls…
That was an important thought, but before he could pursue it much further, Queen Merope turned towards him, and her face blazed with beauty.
It was beauty that Harry had only seen before in the middle of sunsets and other works of art made of shadows and dark but brilliant colors. There was a tapestry in Lord Black’s house that looked sort of like her face right now, and depicted the Unseelie elves dancing in the middle of a dark forest around a blood-stained altar. Queen Merope’s eyes suddenly had a glossy sheen, as though they reflected everything around them, and Harry could see how small and unworthy he was in that reflection.
“You need to understand,” the queen whispered, stepping forwards and reaching out a hand. It didn’t touch Harry’s cheek, but Harry knew why. Even renewed by Hyacinth’s phoenix fire, his skin was too dirty for an elf to touch. “I granted you a few kind words and a chance to defend yourself because that is the sort of person I am. But you should have been happy claiming the place you chose, a dirty servant. That is all humans and half-elves are to the rest of us. Servants. Those who rule because we indulge them. Are you aware of the ultimate goal of Faerie, prince?”
The name was gently, dreadfully mocking. Harry struggled to clear his throat. It was hard. It was clogged with the consciousness of his own unworthiness. “I—I think that Faerie is going to take over the human realms. When the majority of the population in each kingdom are of elven blood or under the sway of elves, then Faerie will grow and absorb the human kingdoms into itself.”
It was something he had only dared to voice on long winter nights before this, sitting by himself in his quarters. There were portraits and mirrors he could talk to, all of them enchanted against betraying the blood of the House of the Potter. They had been horrified, but the idea had seemed abstract to Harry. First, he was half an elf himself; second, he had a deep-down contempt for those who grew so enchanted by glamour that they pined themselves to death, the way the old steward had done after Queen Lily had died.
The way his father was doing.
“Yes, exactly,” Queen Merope said, and smiled at him. The smile made Harry want to kneel, but somehow he stayed on his feet. She frowned slightly and glanced over his shoulder at Tom, who was still separated from her by the imposition of Harry’s body. “And that’s a strategy that was decided on in Faerie long ago, when we saw how fast humans bore children and how hungry they were for land. We could not fight them with armies. We chose to fight them with beauty.”
Queen Merope leaned closer and shook her head a little. “And you, foolish half-elf, have all the dirty blood and weak mind that I would expect from a human. Nothing you saw here in the underworld has been real.” She paused and then gave a tinkling sigh like glass breaking cut with silver bells. “Or perhaps I should say that nothing you saw here has been as an elf would see it.”
“I know that,” Harry said. “I’ve accepted it.”
“But have you accepted the consequences? That it means you cannot be with my son?” Queen Merope nodded to Tom, who had a frown on his face, but still didn’t seem to have woken up completely. “Because he sees things the way an elf would? Because he is more elven than you will ever be?” She paused, then added with utter contempt, “Or would you still say that you have a claim on him?”
“It’s not that I have a claim,” Harry began.
Queen Merope laughed, and once again, it was so sweet that Harry found himself wincing before he thought about it. “But you would still act as though you do.” She shook her head. “Tom will learn better, and I will discipline him, and then we will return to the world. He will take one of your sisters as wife. Probably one of the older ones. I doubt he would care for the younger.”
“And what about me?”
Queen Merope smiled at him, a slow tilt of her hair making it clatter as it slid down her neck. It sounded like the warning of a rattlesnake before it struck, Harry thought. “I am sure that a fine young half-elf like you can find his own way out, yes? Because you think yourself good enough to make a claim on my son.”
“Tom wouldn’t want you to leave me here like this.”
“What Tom wants no longer matters.” Queen Merope turned and ran a hand down Tom’s face, and his expression shifted into one of absurd calm. Tom would never be so unaware under normal circumstances, Harry thought, and that increased his sense of wrongness about the entire situation. “I will take care of him after the discipline, and he will find how much better his life goes when he listens to me.”
“Were you the one who burned his father to death?”
Queen Merope stopped and stared at him. Harry didn’t know where the question had come from, but he had thought, and Tom feared fire in a way that spoke of seeing his father’s death, and he had mentioned that his mother had received news from Faerie about Queen Lily’s pregnancies, and he had forbidden Harry from speaking about her…
“Perhaps you are more clever than you look,” said Queen Merope, with a slight bow of her head. “But not clever enough to claim my son.”
“I want to see him safely back in the human world,” Harry said quietly. “With the curse on my sisters being broken.”
“Then you want him for that. Not for himself.”
“You have no idea what the relationship between us is.”
Queen Merope raked Harry with a glance that ran up and down his body like claws .”I have a good idea, and no need to sully my mind with the details.”
Harry felt the blush creeping up his face and wished something could stop it. He knew he looked like a human when he blushed, and from the slight smile on Queen Merope’s face, she knew that and was counting on it.
She started to turn away, reaching out to drag Tom by his arm. “Entertaining conversation aside, you have no claim on myself or my son. I wish you luck in finding your way out of the underworld, Prince Harry.”
“Tom wouldn’t want you to leave me here.”
“As I said, he no longer has the luxury of an opinion.”
Harry braced his feet and shook his head once, sharply. It was something he had resorted to when some elven visitors from his mother’s part of Faerie had come to his father’s court, and they had laid enchantments on the other servants simply by the way they moved and looked and spoke. Harry wanted to challenge his own cowardice and go after Queen Merope. She had no right to turn Tom into the sort of passive toy he would hate being, or expose his secrets and weaknesses to Harry.
He did nothing but shake his own head, but Queen Merope gasped and staggered. Her hand reached out and groped at the air in front of her as though she had lost track of an iron bar she was following. Then she dropped Tom’s arm and spun to face Harry.
Her face was a mask of rage, and all the Unseelie beauty had fled. Harry stared back and thought that was strange. His mother had been beautiful even in her anger, and it made sense that an Unseelie elf would be the same, although perhaps with considerably more bloody-mindedness.
“You dare?” she spat. “You leave me with no choice but to use the final weapon!”
Harry sprang back, trying to remember human spells that would save him and Tom in this instance while he expected her to draw a blade—
And instead, she began to dance.
Harry hastily tried to close his eyes. He had heard all the stories—which were more like “history” in the case of elves—of Faerie dancing that enchained mortals. He was enough like a human that he assumed he would need rescuing if he watched long enough, and Tom was no longer capable of protecting him.
But when he looked again at Queen Merope, she was spinning with her arms up and her hair flying behind her. She was graceful, but she didn’t compel him to watch her; she did nothing but move back and forth rhythmically. Harry blinked. Once again, she seemed to be doing this in a strange way.
In fact, her dancing looked familiar, even though it shouldn’t have. Harry had seen elves dance, but they were Seelie dances. Why would an Unseelie elf do something like that?’
Queen Merope finished a turn and faced him again. Her eyes stared at him, burning indigo, but also glossy in a way that made Harry wonder if she wasn’t enchanted herself.
Iris’s gift is mirrors!
Harry dashed straight at Queen Merope. Her eyes opened and she lifted her hands as if she was going to score his face with physical claws this time, but Harry forced himself to ignore that. He grabbed her wrists and held them out from her body, so she couldn’t hurt him that way, and leaned forwards to see his reflection in her eyes.
Dirty. Grubby. Human. The way he had always looked, the way he had presented himself to Tom.
Harry took a deep breath and said the words that rolled thickly up his throat, like stones.
“I am a prince, and I do have elven qualities.”
Queen Merope shrieked, and the shriek started somewhere in the depths of the mirror that was her eyes and rose up long and hard and fast. Harry continued to hold her wrists, ignoring her as she writhed in his arms and adopted other forms, including that of his mother for a moment, and Iris. Then came Jade’s form, and Harry smiled coldly.
“And Jade’s gift is the dance,” he told the figure, and it broke apart, shattered, like flying fragments of mirrors, only to reform into the darkly shining figure he had glimpsed once before.
“And Krystal’s gift is beauty,” Harry said. “But I concede that I hold my own beauty, or someone like Tom would never have slept with me no matter how tempted he might have been.”
The face writhed this time, drowning in water like the pool that Krystal sometimes admired her face in, and a final face rose, one that was—
Harry nearly shivered, nearly let the figure go. This was himself the way he had sometimes imagined he might be, with his hair a dark, deep red that was a variant of his mother’s blood-fire color, and verdant green eyes like the hills of Faerie, and a smile that could beguile anyone who saw it, and a sword by his side that had been forged in the wounds of dragons. This particular face could lead a nation.
The idealized version of himself smiled back at him and murmured in a sweet voice on the edge of hearing, “Wouldn’t your Tom want you if you looked like this?”
Harry reached back to memory and reality—or at least his memory and his reality. Maybe it was all different, in different versions of the elven underworld. But he could only pursue what he knew to be real.
“He wanted me even though I didn’t.” Harry narrowed his eyes a moment later, remembering how the figure that had looked like Queen Merope had tried to bewitch him at first, and added, “And Lobelia’s gift is words.”
The figure melted completely, a runnel of quicksilver that slumped out of his hands onto the grass. Harry gasped as he watched half the indigo hills around them wink out of sight, but then he nodded. Of course. They had been reflections of each other.
Rather as Queen Merope had been a reflection of Tom’s deepest fears, or his susceptibility to enchantment.
Harry watched as the ground shivered, and out of it grew two flowers. One was an iris that raced towards the dim air of the underworld as if towards the sun, a piece of jade carved to look like a dancing maiden caught in its petals. The other was a lobelia. On one petal was a tiny crystal pool of water.
Harry supposed that was all the acknowledgment that he was going to get that his sisters were now free. He swallowed, his heart still pounding. That had been the hardest challenge, especially since the reflection had been free to use words, beauty, and dance as a means to enchant him.
Harry turned slowly to face Tom.
Tom was staring at him with his usual expression back again, although Harry thought he had never seen him look so startled. He blinked and said, “For a moment, you were—it was as if I was looking through a pane of glass.”
Harry smiled sadly. Tom must have seen him through the mirror of the curse’s glamour. Yes, it had made Harry look like the kind of prince who could be a consort to a future king, and someone who might stand up to the real Queen Merope, not the shadow of her they had met here.
But that was a dream, and it was as ended as the curse was now.
“My sisters are free,” he said quietly, nodding to the flowers. “And so are you, now. Do you think we can find our way back to the gate that leads out from the underworld?”
“I—think we can.” Tom stared at him for a second longer, and then his eyes dipped to the level of Harry’s collarbone and his expression became fierce. “You’re hurt.”
Harry looked down in surprise. A long, shallow scratch ran along the side of his neck, and began to hurt when his eyes landed on it, as if it had waiting for him to notice it. Harry shrugged. He supposed one of the false Merope’s nails must have scratched him after all, or perhaps one of the flying fragments of the mirror it had become had. “It’s nothing.”
“It’s a wound you got defending me, when I was helpless.” Tom’s voice was soft and his eyes concerned in a way Harry hadn’t known they could get. “Let me.” He reached down and took something fluffy out of a pocket. Harry blinked, watching him. Tom was holding a handkerchief made of what looked like silk as silver as shadows.
He stepped forwards and knotted it gently around Harry’s neck, fussing with the folds until he had them the way he wanted them. Then he stepped back with a faint smile. “What do you think?”
Harry looked down, wondering what there could be to “think” about a handkerchief, but had to smile when he saw that the green letters that spilled out P. T. H. S. were right over his pulsepoint. Prince Thomas of the House of Slytherin. Harry traced them with a finger for a minute, and then looked up. “I like it.”
Tom’s gaze clung to his for a second before moving away. He seemed shier and more awkward than he ever had, but Harry thought he understood. How did you face the man who’d had to rescue you despite you being more elven than him, let alone the man you’d slept with?
And now the quest that had included that sex was done.
Harry swallowed and reached for the pack that Tom had dropped when the enchantment began to work on him. “Have you thought about which of my sisters you want to take as your consort?” he asked softly. He understood now how difficult Tom’s choice must be. He would want someone not only intelligent and with magic and who could be his equal, but someone who could help him withstand Queen Merope’s overwhelming presence—assuming she was anything like the reflection that the curse had woven for Tom.
“Yes, I have. There is only one consort I desire.”
Harry thought of asking for the name, but he was too afraid he would flinch when Tom told him. He contented himself with a long, slow breath, and turning in the direction of the gate. “Let’s get out of here.”
He’d only taken one step when Tom grabbed his elbow and steered him onto a different path, shaking his head in what sounded like exasperation. “Really, Harry. You can see through a truth of the most difficult test of the curse, but you can’t see the path blazing across the grass?”
Harry relaxed. The chiding, arrogant Tom was back.
And although it wouldn’t be easy to give him up to—who? Harry thought it was probably Amaranth or Beryl—Harry would cherish the small amount of time he had remaining with him.
Tom kept a tight grip on Harry’s arm even after they passed through the gate and were walking through the garden. The sunset painted the sky—the human sky—with colors that Harry found himself smiling at. He had never thought he would see them again.
Then he frowned as he realized that the evening meal would be going ahead—if the people who he had given orders to this morning remembered what they were supposed to do. Harry needed to be there. “Excuse me, my lord,” he muttered, tugging at the hold Tom had on his elbow.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
Harry gaped as Tom swung him around and backed him up against the garden wall. His eyes weren’t the color of the hills of the underworld here, Harry thought inanely. They were simply a brilliant darkness that seemed to pulse in time to the light of the stars overhead.
“To start dinner,” Harry said. “They probably haven’t started it.”
“You think,” Tom began, and then paused. For a moment, his hands remained on Harry’s arm and shoulder. Then he removed them and half-inclined his head. “Of course you do.”
Harry watched him cautiously. Tom seemed to notice, and smiled without much moving his lips. “Of course you do,” he repeated. “There are certain things that our adventure in the underworld didn’t change at all, did it?”
Harry fought to keep from lowering his eyes or blushing. Of course Tom was holding by the way things had been before they went into the underworld. That was sensible. They could be lovers, or equals, or princes together, when they were on a quest to break a curse, but not outside it.
It had been a while since Harry had felt the death of a hope. It was as painful as it had ever been. He murmured, “Forgive me, my lord, for presuming.”
Tom turned and walked away from him. Harry watched him go for a moment, then glanced up at the castle. Most of the windows in the princesses’ rooms were dark, but he still thought that their father would have noted the change. They were probably in the great hall or the indoor courtyard, and they wouldn’t have started to droop or lose their interest in the world outside their heads the way they always had when night fell before. People already knew the truth, and Tom would go announce it.
He would probably flirt with one of Harry’s sisters. He would look at them with those intense eyes and be thinking about what their future children would look like…
See, Harry told himself as he made for the kitchens and the orders he had to issue. You were mad to ever think he would choose you. You can’t give him children, and a future king needs heirs. He was always going to pick one of your sisters.
So he needed to learn that his hopes had been for nothing, and so had his lies to himself. Harry headed clear-eyed into the kitchens, where the other servants welcomed him with cries of relief, and sternly told himself not to attend the announcement for the court tomorrow when Tom would explain what had happened and who had chosen.
He woke up, bleary-eyed, in the middle of the night, and put a hand to his throat, and realized he’d forgotten to return Tom’s handkerchief. He toyed with the idea of going and finding Tom and giving it back to him, but then he sighed and rolled over.
No, he would do that tomorrow, or whatever the last day was before Tom left in triumph to escort his bride home to the Slytherin kingdom.
“Prince Harry, your father is requesting your attendance.”
Harry stared in baffled irritation at the captain of the guard, who was usually the best about calling him by the title he had chosen. “What? Why? You know that I’ve got to supervise this farrier, or he might ‘accidentally’ leave one of the horse unshod.” The farrier was the best in the kingdom, but he had conceived an unreasonable love of Harry’s mother and had been devastated when she chose King James over him. Harry hired him, paid him for his work, and kept a stern eye on him the whole time he was here.
“I understand that both King James and Prince Thomas are requesting your presence, my prince.”
The captain’s eyes were fixed on the wall of the stable over Harry’s head. Harry sighed. It wasn’t the other man’s idea, and it wasn’t fair to blame him for just delivering the message. “Tell them that I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
The captain nodded, looking grateful for the excuse, and escaped. Harry turned back towards the farrier, only to find the man staring at him with his eyes bulging. “What?” Harry snapped.
The farrier hastily turned away, which made Harry roll his eyes. “Shoe the horses in the way I showed you, or you’ll pay when I get back,” Harry snapped at the farrier’s hunched shoulders, and hurried in the direction of the throne room.
There was a general flowing and jostling of people in that direction. Harry slowed, grateful for the excuse. Every moment that could go by before he had to lay eyes on Tom again would help.
He knew it was his own fault, knew it and ached with it. Tom had never promised anything. Harry had always known why he was there. He had even hesitated to sleep with Tom because he had thought it might bite him later, and then he had walked into the trap with his eyes wide open.
Like a fool, Harry thought bitterly as the doors of the throne room opened in front of him.
The handkerchief felt tight around his throat. Harry tugged at it as he made his way to the front of the crowd. More than one person stared at him and then stepped hastily away. Harry restrained a sigh with an effort. He had to live among these people when Tom was gone. The least they could do was make it easier for him.
Harry reached the floor in front of his father’s throne and smiled a little at the sight of his sisters. They all stood in a row, their hands clasped in front of them, and for once even Iris was looking away from her mirror and even Lobelia’s tongue was silenced. Their faces shone with still more of the Blaze.
How can anyone resist them? Harry thought. He did hope that Tom would choose someone other than Garnet or Jade, though. They were exchanging glances with two of the guards, as Harry had seen long since.
Harry turned around quickly. Tom had stepped towards him, his smile a faint thing Harry had never seen before. “You are well?”
“Of course,” Harry said slowly. Tom said that as if there was some reason to believe that Harry wouldn’t be well. “We only saw each other a few hours ago.”
“And yet how much has changed in that time,” Tom said, and stood beside Harry, looking at his sisters and King James seated on his throne beyond them.
Harry nodded, his throat tighter than the handkerchief could account for. His father looked almost happy, happier than he had been at any rate since the queen died. He probably knew Tom’s choice, Harry thought, and knew which one of his sisters Tom would carry away.
Tom smiled at nothing. Harry turned away from him and caught an exasperated glance from his father a moment before King James cleared his throat and began to speak.
“Many of you might have noticed a change in our daughters, loyal subjects,” he said, and beamed softly at the back of the girls’ heads. “They have been freed of the curse. Forever now, they will be as they should be in both daylight and darkness, with the wonder of their elven heritage blazing freely through them.”
Enormous clapping and cheering started. For some reason, Tom’s face looked frozen beside Harry. Harry frowned at him. Was he upset because the king hadn’t acknowledged him as a hero? Harry was sure that was only a minute away.
“And nothing would have been done without the bravery of two young men who risked so much to bring our daughters back to life.” King James beamed at them. Harry breathed more easily and barely resisted the temptation to nudge Tom with an elbow in the ribs. “Prince Thomas of the House of Slytherin, please step forwards.”
It turned out that Tom’s idea of “stepping forwards” meant trying to bring Harry along with him. Harry merrily locked his legs and let Tom discover for himself how impossible it was to move Harry when he’d made up his mind. Tom turned around looking as if he’d like to hiss in Parseltongue. Harry just raised an eyebrow back and waved him on.
Tom walked towards the throne looking constipated, but made a graceful enough bow when he got up to it and had to face the king. “Your Majesty is too kind,” he murmured. “I came intending to marry one of your children, and the quest was necessary if I was to succeed.”
“Of course, but one can still appreciate courage.” King James hung a chain of silver around Tom’s neck. “Here is your reward for a service well done. We trust you will know how to appreciate it.”
Tom bowed, his eyes shining for a second. Harry craned his neck to look more closely at the silver necklace, but he couldn’t really make it out from where he was standing. He arched an eyebrow. It had to be important if Tom reacted like that, but why?
King James then cleared his throat uncomfortably. Tom’s stare was steady, and Harry had the odd impression that his father looked chastened before he turned to face Harry.
“And, of course, our son,” King James said. “Who does like to assume the position of a steward most of the time, but is nonetheless a prince, and who showed considerable bravery in the quest to free his sisters.” He smiled and seemed a little more at ease. “Prince Thomas told us a great deal of what transpired last night.”
He had? Harry blinked. Of course, he hadn’t been around to hear the conversation, so Tom could have said anything he liked. But Harry was honestly surprised that he would have told the truth. Tom wouldn’t want to make himself look helpless or frightened, or less than a good candidate for the hand of one of the princesses.
“And we must say that our son is more of a prince than we thought, and a dashing and strong rescuer,” said King James. He leaned forwards and waved a vague hand, and people cleared out of the way in front of the throne, everyone but Harry’s sisters. “Come up and claim your rightful reward, Harry.”
Wondering, Harry went towards the throne. He didn’t know what his father could give him for the “rightful reward” business. A necklace like the one Tom now wore would be useless to him, and he had all the money and the prestige he needed with his father’s might behind him if he had to make an unpopular decision.
King James gestured for Harry to turn and face the throne room when he got up close. Harry did so. People were staring at him with the same kind of wide eyes the farrier had used, which only made Harry all the more cautious and curious. What the hell was going on that they would look at him like that?
He lost track of his thoughts momentarily as Tom’s hand snagged his. He shot him a wordless look of protest. Tom only smiled and held on tighter.
“We are pleased to announce, with the bestowing of the chain that recognizes an engagement, the betrothal of Prince Thomas of the House of Slytherin to our son Harry, Prince of the House of Potter.”
Harry could feel his jaw drop, and for a second, the room seemed to reel around him. He spun to face Tom, who only smiled and reached out to cup his jaw for a second, leaning towards him.
“You look so startled, darling,” Tom breathed. “After everything we went through, how could you believe that I would choose one of your sisters over you?”
“But—I can’t give you heirs.” Harry hated the way he sounded, gabbling about this in front of everyone, but his objections had to be voiced. Otherwise, someone would probably do it for him, and he hated the idea that someone else would use less gentle words.
“I have a sister who is married, I told you that.” Tom’s fingers were stroking gently along the edge of his jaw, and his eyes were ablaze with triumph, the blaze that the vision of Queen Merope had dimmed. “She has children who will be of my blood, and one of her sons is already promising. When we are married, I have no doubt that Amratha will allow us to foster him.”
“B-but…” Harry closed his eyes for a second and centered himself. It didn’t help that when he opened his eyes he saw the incredulous stare from the majority of his sisters—although Amaranth and Beryl were smiling at him—and he had to turn his head to make sure that he was focusing only on Tom. “Do you want someone who’s so much more human than my sisters are?”
“I want the man who was at my side in the elven underworld.” Tom didn’t look away from him. “The man who saved my life twice, and who saved my sanity and taught me courage in the face of fire. Come, Harry. You must have known this would come.”
“I truly didn’t,” Harry whispered. The reeling had calmed down, but he knew he could bring it back any second. Now he just felt as if he were drifting in the middle of a dream. “You have no idea of the way I’ve thought of myself.”
“I know exactly how you have,” Tom said, and now his eyes were incandescent with something else. He turned his head and stared at Harry’s father. Harry noted how the king immediately turned his head away. “You thought of yourself as a servant and acted in a way that was unbefitting a prince, but you were encouraged to do that by your family.’
“He has eyes so much like my dear Lily’s,” King James whispered. “It was easier when they weren’t looking at me.”
“Well,” Tom said. “Console yourself with the fact that Prince Harry will be coming with me to the Kingdom of Slytherin in the shadow of the Obsidian Hills, and you won’t have to see his face again except at official functions.”
Harry closed his eyes. He should object to that and insist that he did want to visit his family, but…
The fact was, he didn’t. Even as he’d taken on the job of steward, he’d resented that his father leaned on him, someone just thirteen years old when his mother died, to take so much responsibility. He’d resented the way that the steward had retreated into a quick death and his father into a slower one, all because they weren’t strong enough to survive the loss of his mother’s glamour. And he’d resented the praise that other people heaped on his sisters for having magic and doing ordinary child-like things, while they looked straight past him for assuming an adult’s role.
I wanted to be remarkable, too.
There was a soft little noise in the air next to his face, and Tom’s eyes widened. Then he laughed.
“Tom?” Harry whispered. Perhaps this had been a lie, or a lingering bit of deception from the elven underworld, and Tom wouldn’t marry him after all.
Tom reached into his pocket and pulled out a hand mirror with a small flourish. Harry stared into it and didn’t recognize the man who stood there, his eyes aglow with verdant fire and a touch of blood-red in his hair. It wasn’t the same as the idealized figure he had seen in the underworld.
It was real.
“The last bit of the curse, is my guess,” Tom said. “It could only be broken by you acknowledging what kind of place you had taken to yourself.” He reached up and ran his hand down Harry’s cheek again, smiling. “There would be people aplenty to court you, now, but I won you first.”
Harry just had to close his eyes. He sighed, and turned towards Tom so that the fingers skated more strongly over his face, and breathed out, “Did you tell everyone else about the betrothal before you told me? Is that why they were all gaping at me this morning?”
“I may have spread around some stories of your heroism in the underworld before this announcement,” Tom said shamelessly. “But Harry, anyone less oblivious would have noticed before now.” At least there was fondness in his voice. “Look into the mirror again, at your neck this time.”
Harry did, and gasped when he noticed that the handkerchief Tom had knotted around his scratch had disappeared. What was there was a slender silver collar instead, with an emerald serpent clasping it shut.
“The betrothal collar of the House of Slytherin,” Tom said, and took the mirror away again. “It changed into that the moment I told your father of my intentions.” He leaned towards Harry. “And everything will be settled as soon as you say yes.”
“Admit it,” Harry murmured, confident enough now to ease, “you’re marrying me because you need a cook and a steward.”
“I need you. Always.”
Harry swallowed, held Tom’s eyes and let his own blaze in return for the first time, and leaned forwards to kiss him.
Tom’s fingers slid around his face and his other hand around Harry’s shoulders, and perhaps the people in the crowd and Harry’s sisters and his father clapped or cheered or stood in silence or gossiped among themselves. Harry didn’t notice and didn’t care because, for the first time in his life, they no longer mattered.
What mattered was Tom, and the future in front of them.