Azul took great care not to rush the conversation. His eyes flickered towards the novice still in attendance and drew attention to his presence with a light cough. “We have been journeying for several days and the child has not been eating very well.”
Admittedly he was mostly to blame by allowing the boy to choose to eat things of little nutritional value. But Azul’s words were calculated to stir up the sisterly instinct in the two old women in the tower.
And so the twin mystics snapped their fingers at the novice.
The one seated at Wiseman Isra’s left turned a speculative eye at the child. “Tea and cookies immediately. And a soup of some sort with bread. No meat!”
Azul was not adept at telling apart which of the sisters it was. In their advanced age, the two weird sisters had become indistinguishable — save for their words. With the novice gone, Azul relaxed slightly and offered them both a smile. “Thank you.”
It was the sister who sat to the right of Isra who spoke next. Unlike her sister, she took her time with her words. “Our brother should not have said who you were in front of Mercutio.”
“Rene,” her mirror image retorted crossly. “Mercutio was sent out on assignment five years ago. That was Lysander.”
The gentler sister was not too concerned about her lapse in memory. “Well, nonetheless, our brother was careless. I hope this one does not gossip.”
The prince carefully placed the child on a large pile of pillows before removing the items he carried and planted himself cross-legged on the floor. “It is no worry,” Azul said casually while studying both Lady Rene and her more animated sister, Lady Moirae. “A guard has already recognized me. You can be sure my family is already aware I’m in town. But they have no influence here.”
The elves smiled slightly — all pleased by the knowledge that here in the tower they were beyond the reach of the court’s meddling.
The old man rose from his seat. In spite of his many years, he sat by the prince and the boy. “Whose child do you bring?” Gnarled hands reached out for the crown of the child’s head. “A halfling?” The mystic’s green eyes seemed to dance as he slyly glanced the young elf’s way. “Is it your child, Prince Azurite? Is that why you send our novice away?”
“Isra!” Moirae, who had joined her brother in his inspection of the sleeping child, looked annoyed. Her fingers drifted to the boy’s forehead. “Don’t be so crude in front of a baby.”
And yet, she and her sister both wore a look that Azul could only classify as hopeful.
“It is not my child,” Azul sighed. “Although that is what the rumors will be in short order. The truth is I don’t know whose child he is. He turned up in my lady’s garden and called himself Conn. I believe he’s from the north.”
“Alone?” Moirae leaned forward, her hands still on the boy’s head as she articulated the horror that the others surely felt.
Azul nodded once.
The three siblings silently conferred with one another, before Isra could no longer contain himself. “It’s been so long since we have heard of such a thing, but this child — what on earth is wrong with his hair?”
The disconnected and randomness of Isra’s questions often unsettled the other elves. However Azul was not unused to the wiseman. He grinned. “Ah. I had to dye it otherwise he would have attracted even more attention. His hair is fair.”
Rene was next to kneel beside the child. She touched his forehead before she reached down to test the strength of his limbs. And then she glanced Azul’s way. “It is hard Prince, to understand this. You did more than dye his hair. You must dispel this spell of yours. It makes it hard for our brother to feel out the truth.”
Azul had forgotten that the three, in spite of their great knowledge, were not adept with magic.
The elf wizard laid his hand on the child’s head and pushed aside the sleep spell.
Conn’s blue eyes fluttered open and blinked several times. When he saw the three wrinkled beings peering at him intently, he made a small noise of fear and crawled quickly back into Azul’s lap.
It took several cookies to coax the boy to not run away from the mystics’ intent stares.
When their inspection was done, the old man leaned back against a pillow and furrowed his brow in thought. “The ones who pass freely into the garden are few, young wizard. Our master told your queen long ago what those were.”
The rules were those of the current Queen’s predecessor. Among those who did as they pleased in the garden were those born within it such as the fairies. Then came the unicorns — the last of the twelve races to leave the Garden. And, when there was no king, the suitors were allowed to enter so long as they did not fail the Queen’s test.
And then there was the rare instance the lake decided passage for those most need of help.
Azul rubbed the side of his nose. “The Queen determined it to be the last.”
“Oh dear,” Rene murmurred. “Had she? You must tell us how.”
Azul knew very well they disagreed. With great care he explained the entire sequence of events from the moment he had returned to the garden to his dismissal.
To their credit, the mystics did not interrupt his long explanation save for food. But when he had finally concluded, Moirae was beside herself. “Have you gone soft in the head? You’re allowing yourself to be led around by both a Queen and a child. Wizard, you are not like the rest — you trained with those of us here and know what our master Taliesen would have said. Projections are a dangerous game. This child is not a swan.”
Her scolding confused him. Azul held the squirming child fast and studied him. “Projections? Are you saying she has that power?”
“Her heart is still set on her brothers returning,” Rene intervened. “She would desire to see a swan. Perhaps you and the halfling did what a woman like Fairy Queen wanted.”
“I did not do that.” He did not have that power to blind her so. “As for the boy–”
Isra raised his hand to silence the young elf. “He is a halfling — an extraordinary one. He isn’t bound to simple rules of changing forms and of only one kind. He is a unicorn,” the old man was quite firm about this. “And while your queen might not have understood, this lake of our queen would know — and should have known. Did it not tell the queen? Or did you manipulate the image to your own benefit?”
“No,” Azul was perplexed by the wiseman’s repeated questions about his interference. “I did not. And I doubt it was some subconscious image in my own mind.”
Rene placed her hand on the elf’s. “You have not seen Conn change since that moment?”
“No,” the elven prince sighed at their continued questions. “I have not.”
The old man was very sharp with him. “Think! Before that moment, you had seen something that forced you to show your hand, Prince. Do you not think this odd?”
“I did,” the prince smiled ironically. “But Elisa is very convincing.”
Moirae scoffed lightly. “A pretty face and you’re just another elf. But you are not an ordinary elf.”
“No,” Rene added. “You are not. Nor is she infallible. Perhaps now that you have squandered your cover, you are free to act as a prince who wishes to be king.”
“The fates brought you this child,” Moirae added in case he did not understand.
But he did. “Then I shall I care for this lost one until he leaves me.”
They seemed pleased by the answer. “You are Arin’s blood indeed!”
It was the sister Rene who spoke up this time. “The child may ask to go north, but he chases ghosts. He follows instinct to where the unicorns were last seen. He is a blank canvas. His mind has nothing to read.”
Azul looked at the child, suddenly alarmed by what the wisewoman claimed. “Conn. Tell me how many people are home.”
The boy blinked slowly before he shoved his fist back in his mouth, refusing to answer.
Moirae plucked at the air around the child. “There is no string of fate behind him, no connection to this world to find. And a child like this ought to have something. Something or someone to keep him tethered and safe.”
Azul’s arms tightened around the child. “He will not disappear again.”
“No,” Rene spoke up kindly. “When a life enters the world, it finds anchors, does it not? If you call him your child — Prince, he will be treated as such. But if you return him to the garden, there he can be a unicorn — and be free to find the happiness and sadness that comes with becoming one. In spite of what my sister believes, the path is not decided. “
“It is not decided yet,” Moirae corrected her sister.
The two narrowed their eyes at one another, engaged in a philosophical debate as always. Azul knew the two would continue to argue and reshape their opinions over time, perhaps even until they died.
The prince knew where the best place was for the child. It was not here in this dry, grey place but where magic still thrived. He laughed to himself at his predicament. “She will not welcome me, I’m afraid. She is furious with me — rightly so. And if I go telling her that she has been mistaken, will she really forgive me?”
Isra sighed. “The lake is a deep, strong magic that can overwhelm those who attempt to harness its powers. But it is not alive. It cannot be as facile or charming as an elf cut from noble blood. And in spite of its power, it is meant to be ruled not to rule.”
“Perhaps she will refuse me entry.”
“Come now, prince,” Isra chuckled. “You are the only one with a unicorn, after all. And you are a formidable wizard. You do not need ask for anything, I believe. And you will not be the only one asking.”
“Very well,” the elven prince laughed at the impish look on Isra’s face. “I see how it is now. While my cousins wait forever at the pass, I shall take advantage of this situation and make sure to change this game to my own suit.” Unlike the rest, he had both power and the audacity to see it through. And he would have the Weird Ones at his side.
But for now, they would be patient a day or two more. The baby Conn fussed at his caretaker, wanting very much to go to sleep.
Azul lifted the child up above his head causing the baby to laugh instead of cry. “Dear unicorn, we are going home.”
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