Pepin Merripen sat back in his chair with a grin. "Check," he proclaimed. "Let's see you maneuver your way out of that!"
His opponent, a beautiful, black elf smiled back, toyed with her pearl necklace and moved her knight. "Checkmate."
Pepin sat bolt upright, staring at the board in disbelief. "No," he whispered, then louder as the finality of the move sank in, "No! How do you do that?"
"You always forget about the knight," she said, and reached across the small table to pat his cheek.
For a split-second Pepin's world stood still. He wanted to reach up, take that soft hand, and pull her to him. To feel her lips on his, her supple form pressed against his. To experience first-hand the wondrous joy of first love. Instead, he did nothing.
She withdrew her hand as the clock in the hallway outside Pepin's bedroom began to chime. He could see her mentally counting the strikes and, as they stopped, she leapt to her feet, her blue eyes wide with alarm.
"Oh, gods, Pepin!" she cried. "It's midnight! If Cynthe catches me here... I have to go!" She whirled toward the door. As she did so, her necklace caught at the back of the chair. There was a snap and pearls flew in all directions, disappearing into the cushions of the chair, bouncing across the chess board, and rolling into a hundred hiding places on Pepin's somewhat littered floor.
"Oh gods!" Her wail went up in pitch as she grabbed desperately for the pearls still remaining on the string. "This is Aja's. She'll kill me! Help me, Pepin! Help me find the pearls."
Together they began to search, scooping pearls from every conceivable place and piling them in the center of Pepin's unmade bed.
"You know," she said, holding up a smelly pair of riding leathers, "you're somewhat of a pig."
Pepin flushed and snatched the leathers from her. "I don't have a lot of time to clean, with lessons and all."
"That's a lie," she replied. "We all have the same lessons, Pepin, and not even Keelin's room is this messy."
Pepin stopped his search and looked at her sharply. "And what were you doing in Keelin's room, Nila?" His voice cracked on the last three words and he grimaced. His voice had a habit of doing that lately, usually at the most inopportune times.
Nila gave him a sly smile and dropped to her knees by the bed. "The same thing I do here," she said. "'Best' him at chess." She disappeared under the bed in search of pearls.
Pepin frowned and belly-crawled in from the other side, picking up pearls as he went. "Is that all you do then?" he asked cautiously. "I mean, you and he aren't..."
She stopped her search just inches from his face. "Well, I've never crawled around under a bed with him if that's what you mean," she whispered.
He stared at her. Even here in the semi-darkness he could see her beauty. Her smooth, black skin, her soft dark curls, her mesmerizing blue eyes. And those lips. Full, sensuous, and so close. So incredibly close. Kiss her, you idiot, his mind screamed. This is your chance! Kiss her! He reached forward, she leaned toward him.
"Pepin! Nila!" A woman's voice cut through the air, startling them both.
Pepin jerked upward, smacking his head soundly on the underside of the bed. He uttered a quiet oath and scrambled out, coming to his feet. Nila was standing on the other side of the bed, a red flush on her dark cheeks. The woman standing before them was small and lithe. Her long, blonde hair was gathered into a loose, thick plait down her back, but strands had escaped to flutter about a face that was set in an accusing mask. Her violet eyes regarded Pepin and Nila angrily.
"Mamay!" Pepin squeaked. "We... Nila...her necklace broke," he stammered, then held out a handful of pearls as proof.
"It is past midnight." The woman crossed her arms.
"Cynthe, I'm sorry," Nila mumbled. "We were playing chess. The time got away from us. And then, when I got up to leave, my necklace broke. Pepin was helping me find the pearls."
Cynthe looked at the pearls piled on the bed. "Isn't that Aja's necklace?"
"Yes, ma'am," Nila whispered.
"And I suppose she knows you're wearing it?"
Nila withered. "No, she doesn't. But I'll fix it for her! I promise!"
"I think we found all of the pearls," Pepin put in, sagging as his adoptive father, Crown Prince Treyas Merripen, joined Cynthe at the door. Things had just gone from bad to worse.
"What's going on here?" Treyas asked sleepily.
"Hopefully nothing," Cynthe snapped. "Gather up your pearls, Nila, and go to your room. I will discuss this with Kyel and Willow in the morning. Treyas, I'll leave you to speak to Pepin on conduct befitting an elfin prince."
Nila hurriedly did as she was told, and slipped between Treyas and Cynthe into the hallway. Cynthe gave Pepin one more scathing look before she left. Treyas stepped into the room and closed the door quietly. His gaze darted across the scattered belongings, the unmade bed, and came to rest on the chessboard.
"She beat you again, didn't she?"
Pepin rolled his eyes. "As always." He watched Treyas approach the chess set and settle himself in the same chair Nila had been sitting in.
Treyas took a deep breath. "Mmmm, nice perfume," he murmured.
"Papay, nothing happened!" Pepin cried.
Treyas looked at him. "Ah, but who outside this room knows that? Discretion, my young prince, would be appropriate in a house with so many tongues to wag."
Pepin frowned, dropping down on his bed. "That's just it, Papay. There's so many people in this house, the only place I can be alone with Nila is here."
Treyas rose and joined him on the bed. "So," he said after a moment, "did you kiss her?" And in that instant, he became not so much a father as a co-conspirator.
Pepin grinned. "Almost," he replied, his voice edged with excitement. "We were this close." He gestured with his fingers. "Then wham! Mamay came in! She spoiled everything!"
"Or saved everything," Treyas teased.
"Papay!" Pepin cried, honestly chagrined. "I would never take advantage of Nila! Or any other woman, for that matter!"
"Oh!" Treyas' eyebrows went up in mock surprise and his mismatched blue and green eyes sparkled with mischief. "And just how many woman have you lured here on the pretense of a chess game?"
"Papay!" Pepin's voice cracked and he looked at his father in disbelief. Treyas laughed, as Pepin flamed red. "All right!" he cried, throwing himself backward onto the bed. "I give up! Dozens! I've had dozens! All lusting after my tiny, little, Merian, elfling body!"
Treyas laughed again, though there was a note of seriousness in his words. "Do you feel you lack somehow because of your size?"
Pepin shrugged. "I've gotten used to it. I think. Everyone knows Merians are small. And it helps that..." He stopped quickly, sitting up, his gaze darting to Treyas. Though the Crown Prince stood a good head and a half taller than Pepin, he was still the shortest elf in Lidgerwood. In fact, in all of Aelfdene Valley.
Treyas chuckled. "I've gotten used to it, too. And being half naiad has its advantages. Who else can dive for pearls without fear of drowning?"
"Me," Pepin returned, grinning. "Diving under the bed that is."
"And drowning in a sea of love," Treyas finished.
Pepin flung himself backward with a heavy sigh and stared up at the ceiling. "You were only seventeen when you met Mamay," he said.
"I'm just trying to sort out my feelings is all. Do you think someone could fall in love at my age? At fourteen?"
"Fourteen? Seems you have a few weeks left before that happens," he teased.
Pepin rolled his eyes. "A few weeks is nothing. I feel fourteen already. Do you think it's possible to be in love?"
Treyas paused. "I suppose it's possible. Jansson wasn't much older than that when he met Zira."
"Yes," Pepin murmured, lost in his own thoughts. "But Uncle Jansson didn't get married until he was older. I mean, if I got married now, there would be a risk of having children at a young age."
"Married?" Treyas asked. "At fourteen? Don't even think about it. I would never even consider it." He rose. "Nor would your mother. Speaking of whom. She's expecting me to be in here lecturing you on proper behavior. I can understand your quest for privacy may be a long one in this house, but your bedroom is not the place. Understand?"
Pepin nodded, feeling the heat go to his cheeks. "I understand, and I would never do anything immoral, Papay, you know that." He paused, picking at the bedcoverings. "But do you have any suggestions of a place where I could just be alone with Nila? Just to talk?"
"Just to talk?" Treyas grinned. "Jans always found the loft above the stables suitable. In fact, sometimes I wonder if that isn't why he wanted me to have stables built in the first place." He bent and kissed Pepin's forehead. "But you're far too young to be worried about putting them to use. Good night, Pepi."
"Good night, Papay." Pepin watched him leave, then gave a slow, heavy sigh. What his father had said was true. There really was a problem with privacy. Even though the Elfin Council Chambers were enormous, there were three separate families living in it. Kyel, King of the Elves, his wife, Willow, their offspring, plus the four young black elves Kyel had adopted four years earlier, of which Nila was one. Then there was Druce, Treyas' SoulMate and squire, and Druce's wife. Not to mention Pepin's own family - Treyas, Cynthe, the twins Vantann and Thomlin, Dru, and the newest addition, Elek the second. Plus servants, instructors and a constant flow of guests, both elfin and otherwise.
Pepin often wondered how the adults found either the time or the privacy to keep producing offspring. He grinned to himself, remembering Cynthe's words just six months ago when she'd delivered Elek. She vowed no more children and swore Treyas would be moving his things to new quarters. But then, she'd said the same thing after the others too. She was exhausted, which probably accounted for her anger this evening. Thank the gods she has Aja to help, Pepin thought. As his thoughts went to Aja, they also went to her broken necklace. He rolled himself out of bed to search for any more stray pearls he and Nila might have missed.
He found several under his nightstand, more under his chair and still more when he managed to move the heavy wardrobe aside. And it was there that he found the letter from El'leigh, right where he'd hidden it two years ago. He drew it out, caressing the royal seal.
El'leigh, child queen of Mere Odain, his cousin, for a time his ruler, for a longer time, his love. But no more, he told himself, returning to his bed with the letter. I've broken free of her hold over me, both politically and emotionally. He looked up at the sound of something scratching at his window.
"Fayemera," he cried softly and rushed to open the window to admit a large orange and white cat. "Where have you been? It's been days." He scooped the cat into his arms and buried his face in her soft fur. "Mmm, you smell like mint. You've been down visiting that brownie again, haven't you?"
Fayemera purred loudly and butted her head against his chin. He grinned and once more settled down on the bed, his thoughts drifting to the cat's namesake, as they so often did. Still, about the only things the two had in common were their name and their expressive blue eyes.
Fayemera had been a dragon, a huge red and gold dragon with eyes the color of a summer sky. And she had been his, willed and LifePledged to him by his birth father, Pe'pinlaidh, the DragonMaster of Mere Odain. Then, four years earlier, Fayemera had given her life for Pepin and Treyas in a battle against Irida, El'leigh's mother. That fact alone should have made Pepin despise El'leigh. And it had. For a time. But as his grief over Fayemera's death had abated, so had his anger at El'leigh. After all, she had been as much a pawn in Irida's plan as he had been. And she was alone. Dreadfully alone.
That was the primary reason Pepin had given her the kitten four years ago. Fayemera's twin. It had felt like he was giving El'leigh a direct link to him through the kitten. Pepin shivered now, recalling the MindLink he had once shared with El'leigh. Sometimes, he wished he carried it still. But El'leigh had blocked him when he'd sworn allegiance to Lidgerwood and his elfin half. He had forsaken his Merian heritage and his role as DragonMaster. And, in El'leigh's eyes, her.
Still, two years ago, she had written the letter he now held, the letter asking him to return to Mere Odain and his past, to take up where he had left off, to become Merian, and renounce his elfin heritage. Though Pepin had never even entertained the thought, he couldn't bring himself to throw the letter away. He opened it now and ran his fingers across her signature, bringing up a mental picture of her. She was small, like him, a brownling, like him, half Merian, half-elfin, like him. Their mothers had been identical twins in King Be'an's court, though their temperaments were about as far apart as they could get. Irida had been cold, calculating and manipulative, willing to do anything to get her way. Alita had been warm, gentle and caring, willing to give fully of herself to help others. In the end, their temperaments killed them both. Alita had been killed trying to protect her son, Irida had been killed trying to possess him.
All that was left were two children without parents to love them and guide them. Yet, both children had been lucky in their ways. Pepin had lived in relative happiness in Dalach with a clan of brown elves for six years before Treyas had found him and taken him into his home and heart. Still, the pain of those six years was hard to forget. He had thought his father dead, his father had thought Pepin dead. Pe'pinlaidh had cared for El'leigh for seven years, loving her as the child he thought he'd lost. Pepin had always resented El'leigh for that. After all of this time, he still did.
And, he admitted to himself with a sigh, he still loved her. He had an overwhelming desire to care for her, to protect her, to shelter her from any further pain or loneliness, though why he had such desires he couldn't say. She was beautiful, there was no denying that, with her dark brown skin, long wavy black tresses and dark eyes. But there was more to it than beauty. There had to be. The two of them fought like animals whenever they were together. Which was precisely the reason Treyas had ended the frequent visits two years ago. Everyone at both palaces got tired of hearing the bickering.
Pepin grinned, addressing the cat. "How can she irritate me so badly and yet hold a place in my heart?" He exhaled loudly and settled back against the pillow. Well, no matter. Nila would soon occupy that place. Hopefully. He closed his eyes to sleep, a smile on his lips. The letter fluttered from his fingers to the floor, where it came to rest on a pile of soiled tunics.
* * *
"Pepin! Wake up! Come on, get up!" The high-pitched voice was joined by another, no less enthusiastic. Pepin's five-year-old twin brothers bounded into the room and onto his bed, shaking him awake.
Fayemera fled the bed with a hiss and a snarl. Pepin groaned, yanking his pillow over his head. "Go away! It's Saturday. There are no classes today. Let me sleep."
"I thought you might enjoy a day at the beach," Treyas said from the doorway. "I've invited Nila."
Pepin jerked the pillow away. "Papay!" he wailed. "Now everyone will know!"
"Pepin's in love, Pepin's in love," the twins chanted together, jumping up to stomp around the bedroom.
"Oh, gods!" Pepin moaned, hiding his head again.
Treyas chuckled. "Vans, Thoms, that's enough. You've done your job here. Go down to breakfast."
"Papay, can we take Rainbow to the beach with us?" Vantann asked.
"That's a stupid name for a dog!" Pepin grumbled, his voice muffled by the pillow.
"Is not!" Thomlin retorted hotly, his keen elfin hearing working perfectly.
"Can we, Papay?" Vantann asked again, his blue eyes pleading. "Please?"
"I suppose. But you two will be the ones to wash her when we get home. Not me, not Mamay, not Druce."
"We will, we will!" they cried happily and tore from the room with the same exuberance they'd entered.
"Come on, sleepyhead," Treyas prodded. "Breakfast waits."
Pepin groaned as Treyas snatched the pillow away. "Can't I just stay here?"
"I thought you wanted some privacy with Nila?"
"There will be. If everyone is at the beach, I'll have the whole palace virtually to myself."
Treyas grinned. "No such luck. Jansson and Kyel have business to discuss, so Zira is bringing the children over to play while she visits with Brynne."
Pepin groaned again, thinking of his uncle's brood. There would certainly be no privacy at the beach, and once the twins started telling everyone...Pepin groaned a third time, and covered his face with his arm.
Treyas laughed, then bent and retrieved the letter from the floor. "What's this?"
Pepin gasped and made a desperate grab for the letter, but came up short as Treyas stepped away, reading. He looked up, his eyes questioning. "When did this come?"
"It's old," Pepin said quickly. "I've had it for a couple of years."
"You never mentioned it." Treyas' voice was flat, empty.
Pepin shrugged and climbed out of bed to take the letter from his father. "I never answered it either," he said.
"I see." Treyas regarded him for a long moment, then abruptly turned toward the door. "Breakfast is ready. Be down in five minutes. We're leaving within the hour."
"Papay." Pepin took his arm. "I really didn't answer it."
Treyas reached up to touch his son's face gently. "I believe you," he said quietly, and left.
Pepin frowned, then folded the letter carefully and tucked it into the tunic he would wear later. Why, he didn't know.