Lusmore bustled into the room, then halted. "Your majesty." He bowed quickly.
Jasper stood and extended a hand, eager for any excuse to set aside his troubles. "I'm not a majesty." Face to face, Lusmore appeared only thirteen or fourteen years old, with a splash of freckles and a shock of sandy blonde hair. "You're human, aren't you?"
"Yes, your -- sire." Lusmore shook Jasper's hand as though afraid it would bite him. His insecurity smelled like fresh salmon. Humans, in Japer's experience, could barely perceive each other's hearts, and so made no effort to conceal their own.
"My mother was a human. Join us."
The hunchback stared. "Your mother, sire?"
He nodded. "We could be brothers, for all I know."
Lusmore smiled. "Then let me play you a tune, my brother." He tapped out the first few notes and began to fiddle. It was a simple version of a human piece, but he played it after his own fashion, and the rhythm danced in Jasper's heart and made him feel well again. Lusmore finished with a flourish, to which the listeners gave enthusiastic applause. He grinned. "Do you play, sire?"
"Not well." Jasper pulled a slim volume from the pocket of his coat and flipped it open. "I have tried to write some songs. I've translated a bit of dwarven poetry, if you care for it -- Alberich the Cunning."
This caught the attention of the baron's servants. "What does a fae want with the Great Smith?" asked a stout dwarf with the air of an ale-steward. Several grey-bearded dwarves grunted in agreement, glaring warily at Jasper.
"It is a gift for my nurse, to give to her children and grandchildren," said Jasper. "Many of the city dwarves no longer speak the mining tongue."
"Give us a read, then," said the steward. "Let's test the metal of your work."
He flipped through the pages, looking for a passage that was both well-translated and entertaining, gave up, and went back to the beginning.
"When the brindled bane of Heaven, monster of the river Van
Burst forth and overran the Earth, stretched his jaws to snatch the Sun
And devour the Moon and Stars...."
The steward grunted as Jasper finished. "Dwarvish is an uncommon interest for a fae." He rose and made to leave, his duties no doubt summoning him elsewhere. "The translation could be worse, though. I wouldn't mind a copy of it myself."
Jasper tucked the little volume back into his pocket. Of course, even if he did finish the translation, few dwarves could ever afford it. The cost of hand-copying manuscripts was enormous, and those funny presses used in the human world were still banned under some ancient edict.
He had once pressed his father on the matter, but the king had simply looked aghast. "And put a thousand of copyists out of business?" He would do no such thing.
Lusmore shuffled his feet. By his expression he seemed not to have particularly understood the poetry, but was too polite to say so. "Are you marrying Wilgis?"
"Wilgis?" Jasper almost smiled at the familiarity in the name.
"It is what her mother calls her," the hunchback hastened to add. He tugged his cuffs. "She is a gentle soul."
Jasper downed his ale and frowned at the dregs in the bottom of his cup. "She's simple."
"Aye, sire, but I'm as ugly as they come, and she has always been kind to me."
"An act of kindness is the greatest beauty in the world." Jasper sighed, remembering how Lyta had tried to heal the gash in his side.
Lusmore spread his hands. "When she walks in the garden, the hummingbirds land on her. She gives crumbs to the mice, and even the shadows gather to hear her sing."
Jasper bit his lip. Who was he to judge? Perhaps he did not deserve so good a wife.
And yet, no matter how fine a person she might be, she was still a child. He could not possibly marry her, but how to go against his father's wishes? If the whole affair were his stepmother's doing, perhaps he would not be too enraged if Jasper quietly refused the lass?
He shook his head. It would never work --
A thunderclap burst through the castle. The floor buckled. Lusmore grabbed the table as Jasper fell. Candles clattered to the ground and shadows ripped through the walls.
They were under attack. The nightmares had returned.
Jasper ran, terrified. Another thunderclap, and the shadows tore past him. Spines slashed his cheek. He stumbled into the banquet hall as flames rippled up the wooden walls and into the roof. Shadow teeth sank into his arms. He yanked off the oozing mass of darkness and flung it into the flames. Thatch crashed down around him, heart pounding. He was trapped.
Jade emerged from the smoke and grabbed his hand. She dragged him through the roaring darkness to a break in the wall. Starlight winked beyond. He gasped and filled his lungs with cool wind. Dust and ash stung his eyes as they crossed a ditch and made their way up a small hill. Jasper spotted his other sisters, flanked by goblin footmen. Rob ran toward them, shouting. They were safe.
Wilgefortis. Jasper whirled. Where was she? He'd left her behind.
The chief steward knocked him over as he tried to climb back through the crack. "Move!"
Jasper ducked back in and weaved through the smoke. "Lusmore!"
The human lad staggered toward him, helping Wilgefortis over the flaming debris. She looked hurt. Jasper grabbed a timber that barred their way and heaved it aside. Lusmore leapt through the gap in the wall, and they pulled Wilgefortis into the night.
The ground began trembling again. Jasper pelted toward Jade as an enormous black wolf rose from the wreckage. It rushed at them, mouth agape, eyes burning.
The brindled bane of Heaven.
Jasper wrapped his arms around Jade, shielding her as burning cinders rained down. The king cried out the spell of light, summoning an enormous, flickering ball. Baron Willis charged forward, sword in hand, splitting the creature's flaming breath and driving the glowing blade deep into the monster's chest.
It screamed and was no more.
It was a moment before Jasper heard his own breathing, the pulse throbbing in his ears, the soft hiss of mist falling on embers. The wind had died, and he was bleeding from gashes in his arms and legs, smarting from burns on his hands and face.
The king's magic light rose above them like a second moon, casting its silvery rays over the little group gathered on the hill. Jasper picked an ember from Jade's hair and cast it aside. Everything was soon coated with a fine mud.
Baron Willis knelt in the grass, panting, the blade of his sword still glowing red, the grass before it burnt away for a hundred yards. This was why he had been made a baron.
Sapphire, Jasper's youngest sister, began to wail. Jade knelt to comfort her. Wilgefortis and Lusmore stood nearby, arm in arm. She was standing on one foot, but looked otherwise all right. Jasper felt pricking shame at having nearly forgotten her.
To Hell with this marriage. The girl he could not love had someone more worthy than himself, and he would not betray her for the memory of a kiss that never was.
Amber, future queen of the Golden Isles, stood apart from the others and watched the fire burn.