By Clare B. Dunkle. New York: Henry Holt, 2004.
This page contains the prologue and first chapter of Close Kin, Book II in the Hollow Kingdom Trilogy.
Sable sat beside the dead body of her best friend, too miserable to cry. Only seventeen years old, she had already seen three elf women die in childbirth. She and Laurel had grown up together, and she couldn't comprehend yet that Laurel had left her to face life alone. Instead, another thought held her attention with cold finality. Sable was now the oldest girl in the camp. She would be the next to die.
As the weeks passed, Sable struggled with her grief. Laurel's death had left a gap that was almost like a visible thing: a blur where she should have sat with her weaving or a blank where she always swam and splashed in the lake. Life was fragile. Sable had always known this. But did it have to be so predictable? She felt the pain of her loss turn into a new determination. Little by little, she made her plans.
The full moon came again, magnificent in its pale perfection. Sable sat on a hill above the camp, watching it rise over the lake. An elf man came to sit beside her.
"I looked everywhere for you," he said. She didn't reply. He looked at that flawless face, those dark blue eyes, that long hair that was blacker than the night. She was the most beautiful thing he knew.
"It's your marriage moon," he said softly, thinking about how long he had waited to see it. She was a woman now. She was eighteen.
"It's not my marriage moon," she answered. "It's just the moon. I told you I won't marry you, Thorn."
The man gave a grimace of annoyance. He had hoped that once she wasn't a child any longer, she'd stop this childish talk, but he had already been expecting trouble. Sable should have been at the evening meal to renew the vows they had made years ago at their engagement. Then he would have given Sable her food, as he always did, and that simple ceremony would have made her his wife. But when he had woken up in the twilight, she was already gone. The band had eaten its meal without her.
"I've hunted your food since you were twelve," he pointed out. "I've sheltered and fed you since before your father died. I've been good to you, Sable. You know that I love you."
Sable looked at the man then, at his bright blond hair and gray eyes, his broad cheekbones, firm mouth and strong chin. She had always idolized him, just as Laurel had idolized Rowan. "I'm not going to die like that, Thorn," she said. "If you loved me, you wouldn't want me to."
Thorn studied her, puzzled and impatient. She'd been so moody these last few weeks.
"Of course I don't want you to die," he protested. "But I don't make the rules, it's just life. If women don't die, there won't be any children."
"Laurel died, and there wasn't a child anyway," whispered Sable.
"That happens sometimes," said Thorn with a shrug, "and we all miss her, but she and Rowan were happy for a whole year and a half. And she wasn't sorry, either. She knew that's a woman's life." He put an arm around Sable, stroking that glossy black hair. "We'll have a happy year, too. I promise." He bent his head to kiss her. Sable had waited years for that kiss, but she pulled away.
"No," she said steadily. "I won't marry you."
Thorn was angry now. Nature hadn't blessed him with a very large store of patience, and it was rapidly running out.
"We're getting married," he said. "I don't care how silly you're going to be about it. Your father would have beaten you for this kind of talk; you know how much he wanted you to have a child."
"My father killed two wives to have me just so his own name could pass on!" cried Sable. "I'm not going to die like that, Thorn! I'm not!"
"Sable," growled Thorn, taking her face between his hands, "who gave you every single meal you've eaten for the last six years?"
"You did," she whispered unhappily.
"And whose tent did you wake up in this evening?"
"Yours," she said again.
"Are you going to hunt your own food from now on?"
No answer. She wouldn't look at him. He looked at her instead, at that beautiful face, that perfect white skin, and he remembered again how much he loved her.
"No, you're not," he concluded. "Because you're going to be my wife, and I'll be your husband, and I hunt for you. And it's our marriage moon at last, and that's how it's going to be."
Sable glanced up, her blue eyes grave, to study the man who loved her. The man who wanted to kill her. She stared at him for a long moment, calm with despair.
"Then I need to get ready," she murmured and hurried back to the tents to gather the things she would need. Four cloths should be enough, and she retrieved the treasured triangle of broken glass that once, long before her birth, had been part of a hand mirror.
Sable propped the fragment of mirror carefully in the corner of the tent and took her father's hunting knife from under her sleeping pallet. She looked at the bone-white color of the true elf blade that never lost its edge the way their metal knives did. She started to cry, thinking about what she must do, staring at her face in the shard of glass as if she were trying to memorize it. It was the last time, she decided. She would never look at it again.
Watching in the glass, she made the first cut, and the good elf blade hardly hurt her, it was so sharp. She had made that whole cut before the smarting came. The blood covered up her cheek so that she couldn't see what she was doing, but she finished the two parallel cuts and then paused, a little dizzy. Should she go on to the other side before she did the really hard part? What if she fainted before she was done?
"Sable?" Irina was at the tent opening. "Thorn says you're going to repeat your vows soon. Are you getting ready? Can I help?"
Sable quickly put down the knife and turned her uninjured cheek toward the child.
"No," she gasped, Irina's face dim before her eyes and the cloth in her hand warm and wet. "Wait...yes, you can, dear. Go and gather me some flowers."
"What kinds? What colors?" asked Irina happily, pleased to be of use.
"Oh, anything," Sable roused herself to answer. "Something pretty." And the child was gone.
Hands shaking, she made the twin cuts across the other cheek, watching in the glass to make them even. That's stupid, she told herself. Why would it matter? But it gave her something to think about besides the sting of the blade. Blood was running down her neck. It made her hands sticky and slippery, and it was hard to hold the knife.
Now for the hard part, and then I'll be done. She paused for a second and blinked until the mirror swam back into focus. Like butchering deer, she told herself firmly. Like flaying hide. And she sawed the sharp knife between the two cuts on her right cheek, peeling away the skin.
Blood was everywhere. She couldn't remember what she was doing. She couldn't quite understand why all this had to happen. "Butchering deer," she whispered and gave a sob as the skinned cheek blazed with pain. Automatically, she turned the knife to the stretch of skin on the other cheek. Almost finished now.
"Do you want more of these?" It was Irina again.
Sable dropped the knife and stared at the blood running onto her dress, at her red hands holding the pieces of bloody skin. The red knife, the red hands began to turn gray before her eyes. I need air, she thought. I can't breathe. She crawled toward the tent opening.
Irina screamed and dropped the flowers as she scrambled away. Crawling from the tent, Sable heard shouts and running feet. Something must be wrong, she thought. I wonder what it is. She saw Rowan run up and then stop, pale and staring. She heard Thorn call her name and felt him grab her by the arms.
"Sable, what did you do?" he yelled frantically. As the world spun, she saw his handsome face for a second, twisted in horror and disgust. "Oh, Sable, no! You've —you've made yourself ugly!"
Ugly, thought the bloody girl. Yes, that was what was wrong. She was ugly, and she would never be beautiful again. But she was safe. She wouldn't die. He wouldn't marry her now. She slumped unconscious in the arms of the man who had loved her and wanted to kill her.
Seylin hurried through the maze of hallways in the great underground goblin palace and knocked on Emily's door. They had been close friends since childhood, but Seylin wasn't a child anymore. He was one of the King's Guard now, and his black uniform matched his black hair and eyes. The girl he had played with had grown into a young woman. By human standards, Emily looked quite average, and the elvish Seylin looked quite remarkable, but Seylin was the one who found himself daydreaming about Emily's brown eyes and warm smile. He couldn't even tell if she cared.
There was a scramble, and Emily's door popped open to reveal his friend Brindle's little daughter, her snake eyes gleaming up at him. In her arms she clutched Talah, Emily's monkey, rolled up in a blanket like a doll.
"Where's Em?" he asked, and the little girl pointed wordlessly behind her. He found Emily seated on the terrace, teaching a very small goblin boy to fasten a buckle. Emily was always surrounded by children. They appealed to her high spirits and love of excitement. Goblin babies were more fun than human babies, she said, because human babies never bit large chunks out of the furniture or tried to take off on awkward wings and crashed into the wall.
The handsome Seylin was an embarrassing anomaly in an ugly goblin world. His parents had almost died of shame over their son's striking features. Having grown up with teasing, inaudible whispers, and sympathetic glances, the sensitive young man had always enjoyed the company of Emily's many visiting children because he never felt that they were mocking him or gossiping over his looks. But lately, he had found all the bustle and confusion a little hard to take.
"Can't I ever see you alone?" he asked crossly, sitting down beside her.
"Goodness, I am alone," responded the young woman. "Just Brindle's two before class this morning. This afternoon I'm expecting a dozen. We're going to the kitchens to bake cakes."
Seylin sighed. She was right. This was as alone as she ever was.
"Em, I've been thinking," he began. "We're older now, and I wanted to talk to you. After all, we're not little pages anymore." He paused. "We need to talk."
"I've been wanting to talk to you, too," declared Emily with some force. "Ever since you came back from that trading journey last spring, all you do is stand around and goggle at me. You hardly say five words, and if I look like I'm having any fun, you glower at me just like an old governess."
Seylin was glowering now. He tried to make himself stop. "That's not what I want to talk about," he protested. "What I wanted to say is that I won't always be a guard—"
"Nothing wrong with the Guard," remarked Emily breezily. "Thaydar told me last night he thinks the Guard's never looked better. Sweetie, we'd better run you to the bathroom," she added, standing up with the tiny goblin.
"So Thaydar was here again!" snapped Seylin.
"Not now," called Emily, hurrying off and leaving him free to glower unobserved. Thaydar, the cat-eyed commander of the Guard, was his most serious rival for Emily's affection. Thaydar made no secret of the fact that he wanted the prestige of a non-goblin bride, and he was one of the most important men in the kingdom. To make matters worse, he was Seylin's commanding officer. Seylin had spent many evenings on patrol duty knowing that Thaydar was keeping Emily company back home.
After a few minutes of gloomy contemplation, Seylin wandered back into the apartment to find Emily breaking up a fight between the two children. Each of them had one of Talah's arms and refused to let go.
"No monkey for either of you," said Emily, prying them loose. Talah bounced into Seylin's arms, and he sat down on the couch with her.
"Em, I don't want to be a guard all my life," he continued earnestly. "There's nothing to guard. It's so boring. I don't want to be a Lore-Master, either, teaching the Unlock Spell over and over to crowds of pages, and I don't want to be a scholar. They just study things. I want to live stories, not read them."
Emily was pouring drinks and barely paying attention. She had heard all of this before. The little boy promptly dumped his cup down his front. She carried him over to the couch and sat down, scrubbing him off with a towel.
"Did I tell you that Jacoby was here last night," she said, "and he choked on a piece of caramel? I had to whack him on the back for a long time before it went down. I've learned something, Seylin. Goblins with beaks shouldn't eat chewy candy. They don't have any way to chew it."
"Why do I ever try to talk to you?" cried Seylin. "You never listen to a word I say!"
"I'm listening," she protested. "You don't want to be anything."
"Right," he confirmed, trying to ignore the fact that the little girl was staring at him fixedly with her hypnotic snake eyes. "Right, I won't always be a guard, I promise. I'll be something more. I know I don't have much to offer you right now," he continued as the little girl dragged Talah from his arms. "But I think I will later."
"Thanks, I don't need anything," answered Emily absently. "Did you see Jacoby's new sister? Isn't she adorable with those little pink bird feet?" Seylin gritted his teeth, glaring at his heedless beloved. Here he was, sitting right next to her, and she might as well be a thousand miles away.
"Kitty, kitty," giggled Brindle's daughter, patting his knee.
"Very good! Kitty," said Emily encouragingly. "Seylin, change into a cat for her."
"Em, I am trying to have an important conversation!" shouted Seylin. "I will not change into a cat!"
Brindle's daughter drew back and buried her face in Emily's lap.
"And I suppose it's more important than making a little child happy," said Emily angrily, stroking the girl's hair as she cried.
"Yes! Yes, as a matter of fact, it is," declared Seylin, breathing hard.
"Well, go have it somewhere else then," ordered the righteous young woman. "I don't want to hear it."
"No, you don't, do you?" exclaimed Seylin, beside himself. "But you want to hear Thaydar, don't you? You drink in every word he says!"
This wasn't true. Thaydar spent as much time holding babies and repeating himself as Seylin did. He was just more philosophical about it.
"Thaydar isn't rude," Emily replied tartly.
"Rude? I'm rude? You never even listen to me, but that's not rude."
"I heard every word!" cried Emily. "You want to talk, you won't be a guard, you don't want to be anything, and I don't care. All you ever do is complain. Thaydar never does."
"Well, why don't you just marry Thaydar, since you're so fond of him?" he demanded.
"I certainly wouldn't marry you," declared the wrathful Emily. "Not if you were the last goblin on earth."
Seylin stared at her, his anger evaporating.
"Do you mean that?" he asked incredulously.
Emily was still furious. "Of course I do," she snapped, rising and catching the little boy as he made a dash for the terrace. Seylin stood up and stared after her for a minute, but she didn't turn around to look at him.
"Fine," he said bitterly. "Marry Thaydar, then." And he stormed out of the apartment.
Seylin found the goblin King in his workroom, giving his wife her magic lesson. The young man stopped in the doorway to watch, bending down to give Kate's drowsy dog a pat and exchanging a quiet greeting with the guard on duty in the hall.
The goblin King's Wife had required years of convincing before she had agreed to learn magic. She always felt uneasy about what her father would have said about it. Kate had been raised a perfect English gentlewoman, and she had been shocked to learn that her great-great grandmother was an elf. Even though she was technically an elf-human cross, she was so strongly elvish that the goblins called her an elf, too.
Kate no longer noticed that her husband looked alarming, but the first sight of Marak had been enough to startle her into hysterics. The goblin King's body was powerful and bowlegged, with long, wiry arms and big, knotted hands. His magic hand had six fingers. His face was broad and bony, with sunken temples and deep eye sockets, and the eyes that gleamed brightly from under his bushy eyebrows were two different colors, one green and one black. Marak's skin was pale gray, and his lips and fingernails were a rather gruesome shade of dark tan. His hair was as coarse and straight as a horse's tail.
Kate still noticed that hair. It fell in an unruly shock to his shoulders and into his eyes, and he had the habit of running his hands through it as he thought. Most of it was light beige, but a black patch grew back in a cowlick above his green eye, sending strands of black hair falling over the pale hair in what looked like long stripes. Kate disapproved of anything so untidy and kept their young son's hair short as a precaution against his developing his father's taste in hairstyles.
For this lesson, Kate was learning how to heat an elvish cooking stone. The nocturnal elves saw perfectly well in the dark but were blind in the dazzling day. Their eyes were even more sensitive than those of the goblins, so they cooked on special stones that gave off no light. The dwarves had made such a stone for Marak, flat and about a foot square. It lay now on the floor at Kate's feet, and a small metal pan full of water sat on it, waiting to be heated.
"You remember what I taught you about heat spells," Marak said, catching sight of Seylin and motioning for him not to disturb Kate. "They're based in Nameshda, the Warrior constellation, and they focus on the Foot Star. Find the constellation in your mind and point to it." Kate, eyes closed, pointed toward the floor by the writing desk. "That's right, it hasn't risen, so you need to get a good connection even though the ground is in the way. Reach to the Foot Star with one hand and with the other toward the stone as you say the spell. You should be able to feel the heat move by you on its way into the stone. Don't try to do too much. Less is better than more."
Kate nodded and moved her other hand into position. Marak watched as her lips moved and then looked down to examine the pan of water.
Seylin saw several things happen almost at once. Marak stepped back, throwing out his hand and giving a shout. All the water in the pan rushed up in a cloud of steam and whirled toward the King. When it reached his outstretched hand, the cloud splashed against an invisible wall and became a sheet of ice that fell to the floor and shattered. The metal pan melted with a sigh onto the stone, which was turning an alarming shade of cherry red.
Marak shouted again, but Kate stood oblivious, hands still outstretched. With a zing, the painted golden snake around her neck awoke and looped itself about her arms, jerking them to her sides. Marak bent and touched the stone, instantly chilling it. It cracked into several pieces, and the melted pan solidified into a flattened disk with the handle still extending from its side.
"What happened?" asked Kate curiously, opening her eyes.
Marak didn't look up. He was studying the wreckage of the cooking stone and pan, running his hand through his impossible hair. The golden snake twined back up to her shoulders and surveyed the damage too.
"Forty-seven King's Wives have tried to kill the King," it whispered calmly, "but only eight have tried to kill the King with elf magic." Seylin noticed a hint of complacent pride in the snake's sibilant voice.
"Charm, you know perfectly well I didn't try to kill the King!" said Kate in dismay. The snake looped around to study her innocent blue eyes. Then it let out a gentle hiss and collapsed back into painted sleep.
"Oh, yes you did, you bloodthirsty elf," replied Marak. "It's the Nameshda spells. Every time you've attempted a spell centered on the Warrior constellation, you've done some kind of damage. We don't need to wonder what your family did for the elf King, Kate. They were high-ranking military lords who devoted their lives to butchering goblins. When you make contact with the Warrior constellation, your proud elf blood burns, and you want to wrap your hands around the nearest goblin throat you can find."
"That's completely ridiculous!" exclaimed Kate. "Isn't it?" she added uncertainly.
For answer, Marak pried the pan off the shattered stone and held it out to her.
"Do I lie?" he pointed out. "No more Nameshda spells for you. Seylin, you can see why the King has to be the one to teach magic to outsiders. They can be very unpredictable and dangerous."
He put the pan on his writing desk and studied his petite, golden-haired wife for a minute. She certainly didn't look dangerous.
"No defense spells of any kind, Kate, they'll only strengthen your warrior tendencies. It's risky when the magic begins teaching itself like that. No more lessons this week, and we'd better calm down your right hand for a few days to prevent accidents. Your magic is excited now, and it will want more blood."
He took Kate's hand in both of his, the two right hands palm to palm, and stood motionless for a minute, frowning in concentration. After a few seconds, Kate tried to pull away.
"Ow!" she said. "Ow! Marak, you're hurting me!"
The goblin ignored her as he finished the magic. Then he looked down at her distressed face with a smile.
"That was your fault," he said. "You didn't want to give that power up, you elf assassin. You fought me to keep it. What killers your people must have been," he added, surveying her with fond pride. "It's lovely goblin revenge against your ancestors that I have you down here with me."
Kate felt her hand, scowling. "My whole arm's gone numb," she complained.
"And a very good thing, too," remarked the King, rubbing it for her. "I can't have you attacking our son the next time he comes running up to you. He's a little young to understand why his mother would try to kill him, and I think his defense magic would catch you by surprise."
"Marak!" exclaimed Kate. "I'd better not learn magic at all then. I don't want to hurt anybody."
"Other than me, you mean?" laughed her husband. "Don't fret. We'll just have to find something else you're good at besides killing people. Seylin, did you need to see me?"
Kate kissed her husband good-bye and walked off down the hallway, still rubbing her arm. The dog stood up, stretching luxuriously from her front feet to her back feet, and trotted off after her mistress.
Marak sat down at his desk and waved the young man to a stool. Seylin had always been Marak's special protégé, sharing the King's fascination with unusual magic, but he required a particular sort of handling. He wasn't like a goblin in his nature. He was sensitive and easily upset by things, the effect of his strongly dominant elf blood. Marak could see that he was upset now.
"Goblin King, I'm here to ask permission to leave the kingdom," divulged the miserable Seylin.
Marak's astonishment didn't show on his face. "When will you be coming back?" he asked.
"I don't know." Seylin sighed. "I don't think I will be coming back. I don't think there's much of a place for me here. I'm so different. I want to go live with my own people."
"Your own people," mused Marak, his unmatched eyes shrewd and the ghost of a smirk on his face. "Which people are those?"
The unhappy young man dropped his gaze and studied his hands in awkward silence.
"Seylin," said Marak,"tell me what's wrong because it's something serious. At least, it had better be."
"I proposed to Em, and she rejected me," muttered Seylin. "She said she wants to marry Thaydar."
Marak stared at and through him, concentrating on the news. Emily and his wife Kate were sisters, but Emily had almost no elvish blood at all. The goblins called her a human. She had come to the kingdom voluntarily in order to be with her sister, and Marak had promised her that she would be allowed to choose her own husband one day. Emily and Seylin got along so well together that Marak had been sure of her choice, but here she was, picking a real goblin's goblin over twice her age. With that kind of taste, Marak thought, she'd have been a good King's Wife.
"So now you want to find an elf bride," he concluded. Seylin colored up in embarrassment.
"I don't know about that," he answered. "I just want to find some elves."
"What makes you think there are elves to find?" demanded Marak. "The last elf King has been dead for over two hundred years, and when he died, the elvish race died, too."
"The goblins never did track down every last elf," observed Seylin. "Some of the elf lords moved away during the elf harrowing along with groups of refugees."
"Marak Whiteye knew that they were finished," countered the King. "Most of the elf men died in battle. Their widows poured into the camps that remained, and there weren't enough hunters to feed them. They were starving to death. Whiteye didn't need to hunt them down."
"Kate's ancestor survived it," noted Seylin. "And if she did, so could others."
"Kate's ancestor had to marry a human man because her own people were dead, and she herself died almost a hundred years ago. These arguments don't convince me, Seylin. Why are they convincing you?"
The young man frowned at his hands again. He didn't look up as he spoke.
"I have a feeling about it. A feeling. That's all. We were coming back from the trading journey when I first noticed it. One night, I sensed that elves were near me in the forest. I almost felt pulled out of my skin. I've been restless ever since. It was like a call."
"A call." The King's eyes blazed with excitement. "I always knew you were born elvish for a reason. It's your magic—or it's wishful thinking. I don't know which. So now you want to go find your elves. And if you find them, are you going to tell your King about them?"
"Well—" Seylin blushed again. "I don't think they'd want me to. And I wouldn't want them to—to come to harm—because of me."
"Come to harm?" echoed Marak contemptuously. "Seylin, stop thinking like an elf! You are who you are and I am who I am because elf brides 'came to harm.' You just saw an elf bride not five minutes ago. Would you say that Kate came to harm?"
"It can't matter," protested Seylin. "There must be so few elves left, if any. They need their own brides, or there won't be any more elves at all."
"An excellent point," agreed Marak. "But you're not willing to leave the decision up to my good judgment?"
The young man didn't answer.
"Oh, Seylin, you're confused," said Marak, chuckling. "Living with your people! You've spent too many years looking at your pretty face in the mirror."
In the silence that followed, the goblin King considered the proposed quest. It had possibilities, but that elf nature had to be free to do the hunting. Treat Seylin like a goblin, and the chance would be gone. Quite a chance for Seylin, quite a chance for the goblins. Maybe even a chance for the elves.
"Very well, I give you permission to hunt for elves," he said finally. "And here's what I can do for you and your people. I won't order anyone to follow you, and I won't authorize any goblin to contact the elves you may find. I will authorize no raids for brides, and I won't ask that you report to me. I will contact you, but I'll do it in such a way that your elf friends won't know, and you will be free to answer me or not. I won't ask that you return to the kingdom, either, although I do hope that someday you will."
Seylin felt a profound relief. He had been worried about leading goblins to an elf colony, but now he could live among his people with a clear conscience.
"There are only two conditions," added Marak dispassionately. "First, you are and always will be my subject, and I won't allow one of my subjects to suffer attack. If anyone attacks you, even an elf, I have the right to protect you and take revenge. The day—no, the second—that you suffer violent harm at the hands of an elf, I cancel all my promises. That's my obligation to you as your King because you are one of my people."
"That seems fair," remarked the young man. "I can't imagine anyone attacking me." The goblin King just smiled at him. He knew Seylin couldn't imagine it.
"And the second condition," he said, getting up and crossing to a drawer, "is that I need a lock of your hair and three drops of blood." He returned with a pair of scissors, a small plate, and an object that looked like a golden tack.
"Why?" demanded Seylin, immediately attracted by the thought of the magic.
"If I tell you it's a keepsake, would you believe me?" chuckled Marak. He cut off one of Seylin's black locks and arranged it carefully into a ring on the plate. Then, frowning absently, he stuck the young man's finger and squeezed three drops onto the hair.
"It's a tracking spell," guessed Seylin, "so you'll know where I am. That's good. I'm glad you'll be looking after me."
"Seylin, Seylin," chided Marak. "You can't wait to leave here and find your people, but you're glad your King is looking after you. I don't know what will come from such a puzzle, but I'm anxious to find out. Here," he added, reaching for paper and writing a short note, "give this to the storeroom clerks, and they'll provide you with anything you need. Happy hunting for your people, but don't stay away too long. Your King hopes that you'll be back home with us soon. "
After his unhappy subject left, Marak sat at his desk for an hour working intently over the lock of hair, weaving three different colors of waxed thread around it to seal it inside a braided ring.
"Guard, come!" he called, putting the finished ring into a drawer, and Tinsel appeared in the doorway. Tinsel wasn't excessively tall, but he seemed like a giant because of his broad build, and his skin was a dull silver-gray. His silver hair was the most startling thing about him. It looked like something the dwarves had made, and the light glittering on it almost hurt the eyes.
The goblin King surveyed his guard thoughtfully. Here was another strongly dominant elf cross, he thought to himself, rather good looking as goblins went, with no distinctive deformities. Blue or silver skin often showed up when strong elf blood hit goblin blood, and often the strong elf crosses had those blue eyes. Tinsel would have been a good match for Emily's age and elf ancestry, too, almost as good a match as Seylin. Marak studied the young guard a bit moodily. He'd have been a better match than Thaydar.
"Now, why haven't you been trying for young M yourself?" growled the King. "A handsome brute like you."
"Who, me?" asked Tinsel. "Thaydar and Seylin are both after her. Seylin and I were pages together, and Thaydar's my boss." He smiled his good-natured, slightly goofy smile. "That kind of trouble I don't need."
No, he wouldn't, considered Marak with a sigh. He'd find no fiercely competitive spirit here. Goblins generally got along, but Tinsel was beyond the pale. Remarkable for the calmness of his temper, he was just tremendously nice. This had led to a certain amount of teasing when he was a page, but Tinsel had developed a unique solution. He had picked up the tormenter and carried him around until the child promised to leave him alone.
"Go find M for me, Tinsel," said Marak resignedly. "I need to talk to her. I'll be in my rooms." He walked downstairs, thinking it over. Thaydar, of all goblins, and his Seylin gone from the kingdom entirely. He couldn't wait to hear Emily's side of this one.
He sat down in his favorite reading chair and pulled A History of the Kings of England out of the bookcase. Over the years, the goblins who went out on trading journeys had brought Kate a number of books. She used them to teach the pages their English, and she read them for pleasure. Marak read them as much as she did. He thought that a careful king should study those peoples whose lands bordered his own. He always picked this particular book when he was depressed about kingdom concerns; it cheered him up to see how horribly the human kings managed.
Kate lay on a couch nearby, her arm wrapped in a blanket and her lips moving as she read the book of elvish spells they were working through. She couldn't do the magic this week, but she could at least study. A companionable silence settled over the room.
"Do you know, Kate," murmured Marak after a while, "I don't believe these people have kings at all. Not a one of them does any healing or worries about the food crops."
Kate glanced up, trying to pay attention to her husband while remembering that deer health was governed by the Gilim constellation. She had always thought that elf magic would be about pretty things. It amazed her that so many of the spells had to do with deer.
"Of course we have kings," she answered firmly, good English citizen that she was. "Marak, what's the Gilim constellation? I can't place it."
"It's the Milky Way," he replied absently. "Gilim means herd; to the elves it looked like a herd of deer crossing a glade."
"Herd." Kate digested this. "I like Milky Way better. It sounds so much more romantic."
"Really?" Marak laughed. "I didn't know there was anything romantic about having a pan of milk spilled over your head." With a frown, Kate went back to her spell book.
Emily hurried into the room without knocking, and Marak put down his book.
"Finally, M," he commented. "I've had Tinsel looking for you."
"Never mind about that," said Emily breathlessly. "Marak, you have to do something! Brindle said that Seylin went off on a trip, and he told Brindle he isn't coming back."
This looked like kingdom business, Kate decided, and she left the room to prepare for the day's English classes. Emily had gotten into plenty of scrapes and adventures over the years, and she and Marak had had many heated discussions. Kate was glad to stay out of them whenever she could.
"Yes, that's true," remarked Marak calmly. "Seylin asked me for permission to leave."
"But you can't let him leave like that!" said Emily. "Seylin can't just go away and not come back. Or maybe—maybe I could go with him," she suggested, brightening.
"M, you are not going with him," answered the goblin King. "He left the kingdom just to get away from you."
"From me?" echoed Emily, sitting down on the couch. She stared at him in amazement. "But why?"
"Congratulations on your choice of a husband," said Marak by way of reply. "I know how pleased Thaydar must be. I haven't talked to him yet, but I'm sure you have. I'd like to hold the wedding as soon as possible."
Emily gaped at him.
"I don't want to marry Thaydar!" she exclaimed.
The goblin King returned her gaze impassively. "M, didn't you tell Seylin today that you wanted to marry Thaydar?"
Emily tried to remember their conversation.
"Well, yes and no," she answered. "I told him that I'd rather marry Thaydar than him, but only because he was being so rude. He made Brindle's little Penelope cry because he wouldn't change into a cat."
The goblin King's face lit up with amusement. "Seylin was proposing marriage to you," he cried, "and you wanted him to change into a cat?"
"Marriage?" gasped Emily. "He never mentioned marriage! He said that he wouldn't always be a guard, and he didn't have much to offer, but—oh... " She trailed off, stunned.
Marak was helpless with laughter.
"Oh," he agreed when he recovered, wiping his eyes. "You certainly conveyed a clear refusal, anyway, as well as a clear preference for Thaydar. M, I told you that you were free to choose your own husband, and it's high time. Cats aside, which man do you want to marry?"
Emily continued to look dazed.
"I don't really know," she confessed. "I don't want to marry anybody. Why do I have to?"
Her brother-in-law rested his cheek on his hand and studied her affectionately. "What would you have said to Seylin if you'd known he was proposing?"
Emily shrugged. "I don't know," she admitted reluctantly. "I don't want Seylin to go away and not come back. But he's been the worst nuisance this year, standing around and goggling at me. He's never been less fun."
"Seylin finally realized that he loved you," pointed out the goblin King.
"Well, he didn't act like he loved me," complained the young woman. "All he did was grumble at me and act embarrassed. Why does it have to be like this? We were always such good friends."
Because sooner or later we all grow up, Marak reflected, and I should have known that Seylin would do it first. Lighthearted Emily was showing no real interest in growing up. It was time to give her a shove in the right direction.
"M, I have bad news," he announced. "Seylin thinks you're marrying Thaydar, so he's left the kingdom to find an elf bride. I'm afraid you'll have to put him completely out of your mind."
"An elf bride! There aren't any elves left!" protested the girl.
"Seylin thinks there are," observed Marak. "He thinks he almost met some, and I wouldn't be surprised if he's right. He doesn't intend to return, so he's no longer a suitable choice. I'll give you a couple of months to decide on a goblin man you'd prefer, and if you can't do that, I'll marry you to Thaydar. You expressed a preference for him, however briefly."
Emily stared at him in astonishment.
"But—but—Marak!" she spluttered.
"Seylin's quest is very important," cautioned her brother-in-law. "I refuse to allow you to interfere. Don't waste your time thinking about him. He has better things to do than remember past sweethearts, and so do you."
"I'm past?" exclaimed Emily furiously. "Me? Past?"
"I'm glad that's settled," commented Marak, standing up. "Time for court. As soon as you have that name, I'll be pleased to hear it."
He left, and Emily sat there, feeling completely stunned. So that was where Seylin had gone! He wanted to find an elf girl. Someone prettier than she was. Someone magical and fascinating. He didn't even care about her.
Meanwhile, Seylin huddled in the woods of Hallow Hill in the black cat shape that Emily loved. Probably Marak had already performed the wedding ceremony, he thought. Probably she was kissing Thaydar right this minute. She'd found herself a real goblin. She didn't even care about him.
Copyright 2004 by Clare B. Dunkle. Text courtesy of Henry Holt & Co.