Chapter 6: Stories
After less than five minutes, Averil had already come to the
conclusion that dinner with the princess was infinitely preferable to dinner
with his family. The presence of the scrupulous Grimsby was less than ideal,
but one out of two wasn’t bad. Erryn was very talkative. By the way Grimsby was
only half-listening, Averil figured that this was normal for her.
“And Grim, did you know Averil’s got six brothers?” Erryn said enthusiastically while they waited for the housekeeper to serve the food. “Honestly, I don’t know what I’d do if I had that many siblings. Plus he’s the youngest, too, which is just amazing.”
“Very interesting, my dear,” Grimsby responded politely. “And how did you manage to come across such information?”
Erryn looked at the old servant like he was an idiot child.
“He told me, of course,” she said simply. “Didn’t you, Averil?”
The former merman nodded, unable to keep the smile from his face. He didn’t find the little aspects of his life all that interesting, but she took every fact she knew about him and marveled over it as if it were the most exciting thing she’d ever heard. Simple things, like the number of siblings he had, were like treasure to her.
Grimsby raised a brow at Averil, but did not challenge the princess’ word. Clearly he was wondering how it was that the mute boy had managed such a detailed conversation. Erryn was so busy explaining her new discoveries that she didn’t seem to notice.
“It’s fascinating, Grimsby,” she said primly. “You should talk with Averil sometime. He’s really very conversational.”
That was too much.
“Really, my lady,” Grimsby said, struggling not to roll his eyes. His tone of voice was as patronizing as Averil had ever heard it.
“There is no need to make up wild stories about our guest,” he reprimanded her.
The look on Erryn’s face was absolutely crushed. Sitting next to her, Averil could see that her hands were curled into small fists around the napkin in her lap. Her eyes darted back and forth from Grimsby to Averil, no doubt checking to see if Averil had been offended. He hadn’t, but it was kind of her to worry about it.
“I’m not making it up, Grim,” she said firmly. “Look.”
She turned to Averil. He had to set down his glass of water quickly, not expecting to be put on the spot. He was so used to being ignored at mealtimes that this was a bit of a surprise. He felt his face grow warm with embarrassment, but he would no more refuse Erryn her fun than throw her in the ocean.
Erryn smiled at him kindly.
“What do you like to do for fun, Averil?” she asked, the excitement in her voice barely hidden. Her eyes glowed like stars. Her napkin had become hopelessly wrinkled as she absentmindedly turned it over from hand to hand.
Averil thought for a minute, then held up his hands flat against each other. Then he opened and closed them the way he would a book.
“You read,” she guessed. It was an easy one, but he hadn’t been able to think of anything else.
Triumphantly, the princess returned her gaze to her stuffy serving man.
“See?” she said. “I told you. He doesn’t talk, that doesn’t mean he’s stupid.”
Affronted, Grimsby sniffed.
“Far be it from me to suggest such a thing, my lady,” he said formally. The look on his face said that he disliked being put in his place by a teenaged girl, but he said no more aloud. He was very good at his job, it seemed.
Their dinner was served on covered platters, made of the same shiny material as Erryn’s flute. The fact that he didn’t know what it was scratched at Averil like an itch, but he couldn’t ask.
“Carlotta, my dear,” Grimsby asked, addressing the plump and friendly housekeeper, “What’s for dinner?”
“You’re going to love it,” she replied, setting the older gentleman’s plate before him. “Chef made his specialty- stuffed crab!”
Averil’s face went dead white, and he froze in place. Being distracted with the princess all afternoon, he had never found a moment to continue looking for Sebastien. On the off chance he ever actually spoke to his father again, he did not want to have to explain why he left with Triton’s right-hand crab and came back without him.
When Grimsby removed the domed cover from his plate to reveal a sickeningly familiar shell, Averil thought he might fall out of his chair. Fortunately, two beady little eyes suddenly opened. As Sebastien’s panic reached its paramount, Averil’s frantically beating heart slowed.
They were incredibly lucky that Grimsby and Carlotta were so talkative. They were chatting with the princess about something or other. This was Sebastien’s chance.
Averil lifted up the dome from his plate, hurriedly waving Sebastien over. The crab gulped and scuttled across the table as if- or rather, because –his life depended on it.
The young man slammed the dome over his friend’s head, hoping the princess hadn’t seen him. She was staring curiously, but said nothing about it. Inside the covered plate, Sebastien breathed a sigh of relief.
Erryn blinked, and returned to her original query.
“I was asking if you wanted to tour the kingdom with me tomorrow,” she repeated. “It’s been forever since I’ve gotten to go out, and I think you would really love it.”
Averil nodded cheerfully. A whole day, just him and the princess? He couldn’t believe his luck. No Grimsby to sniff at him, no Sebastien to scold him- just Erryn, who appeared to like everything about him. She hung on his every mime, as his family had never done even when he could speak. He didn’t even have to tell her why, but she knew exactly what he needed.
Only after he had happily accepted did Averil realize that this was an entire day in which he might find the right moment to kiss her.
The rest of the meal went by extremely pleasantly (after Carlotta replaced Grimsby’s mysteriously empty plate). Averil was barely listening to the conversation, lost in his daydreams of what the next day might be like.
Sebastien, it seemed, did not share Averil’s pleasant thoughts. The moment they arrived back at Averil’s room, the crab had plenty to say.
He paced back and forth across the dresser, his many legs making an irritating clicking sound. Averil now knew what it was like to sit next to himself at dinner when he got bored and started tapping the table.
“This has got to be without a doubt,” Sebastien complained, “The most humiliating day of my life!”
Averil sighed irritably, glaring at the crab who was ruining his good mood.
“I hope you appreciate what I go through for you, young man!” Sebastien scolded. His rant went on and on, some nonsense about being trapped with a killer chef who was trying to cook him. It was enough to drive Averil mad.
Eventually, he gave up and left. Without a voice, he had no way to get Sebastien to be quiet, so he decided to return to the balcony where he had spent the afternoon with Erryn. It was much more peaceful there. Plus, he couldn’t help but grin at the squeaky sound of Sebastien’s protests as he pulled the door closed behind him.
As he drifted out into the cool night air, Averil realized that he wasn’t the only one with the idea to enjoy the balcony. He had to duck aside swiftly to avoid being noticed by the princess and Grimsby, who were apparently conferring about something.
“I’m simply concerned, my lady,” the elderly man was saying stiffly. “We don’t know very much about him.”
“You haven’t even tried to get to know him, Grim.”
The princess’ reply was harsh. Averil winced at her tone, secretly very glad that he was not on the receiving end of her displeasure. He pressed his back to the wall, intent to continue listening.
“He hasn’t done anything to you, or to me,” Erryn pointed out. “He’s just a poor boy who got washed up in a shipwreck. He looks like he doesn’t have a friend in the world, is it really so wrong for me to get to know him?”
Grimsby sighed impatiently.
“My lady,” he began, the exasperation in his voice very clear, “I am not saying that we should not be gracious and kind to the boy. I simply urge caution.”
Erryn snorted in disbelief.
“I’m sorry, Grimsby,” she said, her words suddenly muffled, as though she were struggling not to scoff at him. “If you only knew how silly that was.”
“I’m not sure I follow, my lady.”
“Wasn’t it you,” Erryn said primly, “-who was so insistent that I should behave more like a princess and meet potential suitors? But now that there’s actually a boy here, you don’t want him near me at all.”
Predictably, she was met with Grimsby’s signature sniff. Obviously he didn’t consider a mute shipwreck victim a suitable partner for the princess. From where Averil stood, the entire situation was fairly amusing. If he succeeded in his challenge and won the princess after all, he imagined the look on Grimsby’s face would be priceless.
“Be reasonable, my lady,” Grimsby insisted. “You must consider a proper suitor. I have indulged your fantasies quite enough, but it is time you take your royal responsibilities more seriously.”
A sinking feeling grew in Averil’s stomach. He knew that tone of voice, that conversation was old hat. It hurt enough being the youngest of seven princes, he could only imagine what such condescension meant to someone in Erryn’s position. Didn’t that old coot have a clue what he was saying?
“Fantasies,” Erryn repeated, her voice deadened, impassive. She sounded almost deflated, as if the conversation had turned impossibly against her and she knew it. There was no winning now.
Grimsby knew it too.
“Mysterious vanishing rescuers, my lady?” he said, tone thick with implication. “Interesting your new friend may be, but a character from a fairy story he most certainly is not.”
Averil had to stifle a gasp. It was one thing to know that she had a vague memory of being rescued from the sea, but another completely to hear that she had mentioned it to anyone. The way Grimsby sounded, there was no way this was the first time it had come up since the day of the shipwreck. Erryn’s moment of silence only confirmed his suspicion.
“I never said,” Erryn replied slowly, her voice wavering, “-anything about that. I know it couldn’t be him.”
Grimsby sniffed yet again. Averil was quickly growing to dislike the old man.
“Really, my dear, you have never been an accomplished liar,” Grimsby said patronizingly. Suddenly his tone was softer, much less demanding. He had made his point, he knew it, and now he had a princess to take care of.
“Grim, you don’t really think I’m shirking my responsibilities, do you?” came Erryn’s soft voice. “I can’t help thinking about it, it’s just impossible to forget. I know that boy was real, and it’s just so...”
She trailed off, unable to finish the sentence.
“My lady, if I may say,” Grimsby began carefully, “Far better than any dream man is one of flesh and blood.”
Erryn’s response was instantaneous.
“Then what’s so wrong with Averil?” she blurted out. Again, Averil had to cover his mouth to keep his audible reaction from being heard.
“I never said a word against him, my lady,” Grimsby replied. “If you recall, I merely advised caution.”
At that, the princess was silent. Averil, too, was very confused- first the old butler had sounded like he didn’t like Averil at all, and now he was defending him? It was madness, trying to keep up with him. What was he going on about, anyway?
Averil risked a peek around the doorframe, and saw that Grimsby now had one hand placed on the princess’ shoulder.
“My dear, you are young, and your head and heart are filled with fantasies,” the elderly gentleman said kindly. “I simply wish for you to see when you hold too tightly. I would hate for that poor young lad to win your favor for the wrong reasons. Far better that you should see him clearly, for who he is.”
Both Averil and Erryn were shocked. The ex-merman had to retreat back to the shadow behind the doorframe, willing his heart rate to slow down before he imploded.
When he looked back, the princess had her arms wrapped around Grimsby’s neck. The older man seemed slightly uncomfortable, but he did smile.
“You’re always watching out for me, aren’t you, Grim?” Erryn said softly.
“Of course, my lady,” Grimsby answered.
Erryn released her servant, an uncertain smile on her face as well.
“I can’t say I quite agree with you,” she told him, “But thank you for thinking of me.”
Sensing that the conversation was coming to a close, Averil realized he needed to go before he was discovered eavesdropping. He stole away down the hallway, his mind spinning in all different directions. His room was quiet when he arrived, not that Sebastien’s endless chatter could have distracted him from his reverie anyway.
That night, Averil’s dreams were plagued with scenarios from his underwater childhood. Some were from times when he was very young, watching Antony try to distract Amery from his reading, or listening to Arren add unnecessary commentary to Allan’s bedtime stories. Other scenes were from more recent times. Snickering with Ansel and Alec about the subtle innuendos in their father’s kingdom-wide announcements. Carving Arren’s flute.
The most memorable of these dream scenes was one that Averil had long since consciously forgotten. It was a conversation he’d had with Allan, shortly after the first time Averil had asked why he couldn’t go to the surface. He was only seven. His father had lost his temper, and simply shouted at Averil to stop asking ridiculous questions.
When sixteen-year-old Allan had found his littlest brother in tears later that day, he had tried to explain it.
Allan sat in the window seat of their room, beckoning his little brother closer.
“Averil,” he said, pulling the smaller merman into his lap, “Did what Dad said hurt your feelings?”
Averil sniffled and nodded, burying his face in his brother’s chest.
“He’s so mean,” the seven-year-old had whined softly. “He never lets me do anything.”
Allan had done his best to calm him down, stroking his hair the way he remembered Athena having done for him.
“Do you remember that time Ansel wanted to play in a steam vent?” Allan asked.
Averil nodded again.
“He burned his tail,” the younger boy recounted, somewhat confused.
“And what did Dad say?” Allan continued.
“Ansel should’ve listened,” Averil replied plaintively. “Dad told him no, but he didn’t listen, and he got burned.”
“That’s right,” said Allan, nodding. “So sometimes Dad has to say no, because he knows what’s good for you and what isn’t. That’s just how dads are. They have to say some mean things now and then, because they want you to be safe.”
Averil pouted, his bottom lip stuck out.
“But does he have to shout so much?” the little boy complained.
That day, it was a credit to the second merprince that he had managed to conceal his laughter.
Averil didn’t remember any dreams after that.
Averil wasn’t the only one with interrupted sleep that night. In fact, his father and brothers weren’t getting any sleep at all.
Triton and his sons were gathered in the throne room, keeping a vigil for the lost one of their number. Triton sat on his throne, slumped over in worry, his hair and beard haggard for lack of care. The boys, who had taken up resting spots around the room, had been going out in shifts, to check the likely places where Averil might have been- all except Alec.
“I told you, he’s not going to be anywhere you’d normally find him,” Alec drawled lazily. He reclined on the floor, tossing a glowstone from hand to hand. His eyes were bloodshot and sunken from worry, but his gaze held no hope at all.
“Not like you’ve made any effort to even look,” Arren responded icily from his place next to the throne. He fidgeted, and his gaze was locked on the large entryway, keeping watch for Antony and Allan to return from their shift.
“You heard what happened,” Ansel reasoned. He sat with his back to one of the support columns, his eyes struggling to stay open. “If it was you, would you want any of us finding you?”
Arren didn’t have an answer for that.
He was saved the trouble of responding by the arrival of King Triton’s herald, who returned with news from the sea guard. The little seahorse was panting for breath, having been swimming hard to reach the King.
Triton raised his head, eyes wide.
“Any sign of them?” he asked desperately.
The herald shook his head.
“No, you’re Majesty,” he replied, his tone sad. “We’ve searched everywhere. We’ve found no trace of your son, or Sebastien.”
The Sea King sank back into his chair, hopelessly resuming his slumped position.
“Keep searching,” he instructed. He opened his mouth to continue, but couldn’t get the words out. Arren rose from his spot and addressed the herald in his father’s place.
“Leave no shell unturned,” Arren said firmly. “No coral unexplored. Let no one in this kingdom sleep until he’s safe at home.” He drifted closer to the throne, reaching out to place a comforting hand on his father’s arm.
“Yes, Your Highness,” the herald answered, and made his escape, leaving the family to their internal affairs.
They sat in silence. Alec had told his brothers about Averil’s grotto and its impending destruction, (though he and Triton had come to silent agreement that they would leave out any mention of humans). Many of the boys wanted to blame Triton’s actions for Averil’s disappearance, but no one was foolish enough to come out and say so. It was clear to everyone that the King blamed himself, and that it was tearing him apart from the inside. Without Arren and Allan to support him, he would have lost it completely by now.
Amery paced aimlessly in the doorway, tailfin swishing madly. He had a book in hand, but he flipped the pages nervously between his fingers without actually reading them. His endless back-and-forth motion was about to drive Alec crazy, but before he could say anything, Amery tensed up. His brothers all looked to him, questioning.
“They’re back,” he said tonelessly, indicating outside the door, where Antony and Allan approached.
The question didn’t need to be asked as the two remaining brothers joined them.
“No luck,” Allan reported softly. “We looked everywhere we could think of, but he’s just vanished.”
“I don’t want to say it,” Antony added slowly, “But...he may have just left. For good, you know.”
“But why, then,” Amery countered, “-would Sebastien be missing as well? His only job was to keep Averil out of trouble. If it was just that he was going to run away, Sebastien would have come and told Father.”
“The only explanation that makes any sense,” Allan mused, “-is that something went wrong.”
A collective shudder went around the room. No one wanted to imagine what might have gone wrong.