§ § § - February 5, 2012
"So what'd Aunt Leslie say?" asked Roald, staring at his mother as she dropped her cell phone atop the chair she had just arisen from and began to wander toward a window.
Anna-Laura Charlotta Enstad Lagnebring—better known as Princess Anna-Laura of Lilla Jordsö—eyed her son and only surviving child, wondering why he merely sounded curious instead of terrified, as she was. "She said she'll speak to her father about it and get back to us as soon as she can."
Her husband, Esbjörn, touched her arm as she drifted past him with her gaze back on the window. "That's probably all she could say, Lauri mi. She's told us on a number of occasions that too little is known about that power, and she's certainly no expert. Calm down. I don't think it's any more catastrophic than it was when we discovered Christian and Gerhard have it too."
"Perhaps," Anna-Laura murmured and stopped in front of the window, staring into the star-spattered dark outside. "But for some reason it seems different now."
Roald grunted and remarked, "If it's odd for you, mor, think how I feel. Staffan's my son, for fate's sake. I thought we'd have a few more years before we discovered which of the boys had the power. But maybe it's something good." He grinned, astonishing his mother and causing his father to aim an interested look at him. "Gerhard's incapacitated, and Uncle Christian's moved back to Aunt Leslie's island. If we ever need someone around to save one of us, Staffan can handle it."
Esbjörn laughed; Anna-Laura sighed and went back to staring out the window. Roald got up and shoved his hands into his pockets, slowly pacing the floor, his levity melting. "You know, it's bugging me...Adriana, I mean. She's scared out of her skull." He turned to his father. "I mean, she took it fine when it came out that Gerhard and Uncle Christian had this crazy power to raise people from the dead, but now that it's our son, she's lost all her objectivity."
"Didn't she know that chances were high that one of your boys would have it?" asked Esbjörn. "Leslie's mentioned it several times, and so did your mother at some point."
Roald shrugged. "Maybe she figured that as long as we still didn't know for sure, she wouldn't have to worry about it. I don't know. It's weird, really, the reactions people seem to have to it. Some think it's the greatest power anyone could possibly have, others think it's the worst curse in existence. Uncle Christian comes to mind with that latter."
"Which is perfectly understandable," Anna-Laura broke in then, turning sharply from the window and propping her hands on her hips. "Look what's happened to both him and your cousin as a result of possessing that power. Now three of us—at least—have been shown to possess it. This family is utterly riddled with it."
Esbjörn let out a laugh. "Riddled, you say? Three of us out of two dozen altogether? That's not exactly 'riddled', Lauri mi. I've begun to think, more and more, that we need to pull the entire extended Kullenäs clan together and find out what the frequency of the occurrence of the power is in a given family group. I for one would love to know whether it can occur more than once in the same family—that is, if two or more brothers might possess it." He shrugged. "We'll never know, but it could have happened in this very family as well. Carl Johan proved not to have it, but perhaps Arnulf did—not that we have any way of ever finding out. And it's just possible that Staffan won't be the only one of your offspring with the power, Roald. Remember, he has two younger brothers."
"And Adriana's pregnant with another baby," Roald said heavily. "She's been hoping for a girl, but I don't know whether to wish for one or the other. After all, Aunt Leslie said that even if girls don't have the power, they can still pass it down to sons or grandsons."
"True," Esbjörn mused. "All you can do is wait to see what you get. Explain to me, again, precisely how you learned Staffan has the power."
"Adriana was out in the courtyard," Anna-Laura said then, gesturing over her shoulder with one thumb. "She had all three boys with her; they were playing in the snow. She said to me that she saw Staffan discover a dead bird lying near the retaining wall at cliffside, and she called to him not to pick it up, before Johan-Erik distracted her by dumping an armload of snow all over Markus. And of course, Markus didn't take well to that. She was too engrossed in calming him down. By the time she thought to look around for Staffan, she was just in time to see something moving in his hands, and the next second, a bird burst from his grasp and flew away." Anna-Laura shook her head. "She knew there had to be only one explanation for that."
"Sounds like it to me too," Esbjörn agreed thoughtfully.
Roald looked at his parents, alternating between them, drawing in a couple of long breaths before venturing, "Adriana's afraid of him now, I think. She hasn't gone near Staffan since she brought all the kids inside."
His parents stared back at him. "Where are they now? In your suite?" Esbjörn asked finally. At Roald's nod, he arose. "I suggest we go down there and have a little visit."
‡ ‡ ‡
On the other side of the planet—where it was the morning of February 6—Anna-Laura's younger brother, Prince Christian, sat in silence at the breakfast table in the house he shared with his wife Leslie and their four children. His hazel eyes were unfocused, his mind processing Leslie's account of the phone call she had just received from Anna-Laura. Leslie let him ruminate, keeping an eye on their youngest child, daughter Anastasia, almost three years old, as she polished off the remainder of her breakfast. Anastasia's older siblings—triplets Susanna, Karina and Tobias—were at school for the day.
After a while Christian sat back in his chair and absentmindedly pushed his plate away. "That was a hell of a way to discover the power," he commented, still staring at nothing. "Graceful somehow, actually."
Leslie smiled at that, regarding her husband with a trace of the worry she'd felt for him ever since rescuing him and about two dozen other men from a gang of kidnappers a couple of weeks before. He was still recovering from the ordeal: he had been slowly starving, and had contracted a disease known as "rotten-lung syndrome" that had no cure and was usually fatal. He had, in fact, perished of the disease just two days before. Fortunately, another member of the Kullenäs clan had been available to restore him to life; but his unusual slimness was still in evidence, and though he grew stronger each day, he still tended to tire easily. Leslie and her father—a member of a different clan—were still grappling with the constant revelations in regard to the power, for the clan that possessed it had been thought to be extinct for several thousand years. Christian's late mother had been born to a woman who was a clan member, explaining his possession of the power. His nephew Gerhard, the older of his brother Carl Johan's two sons, also had the power, but it had literally driven Gerhard mad. He was now in a mental hospital in Christian's native Lilla Jordsö, a small Scandinavian island country located in the North Sea between the Shetland Islands and Norway. Christian belonged to the jordisk royal family, an unbroken blood dynasty that stretched all the way back to the late eleventh century; Lilla Jordsö's current ruler was ten-year-old King Matteus, son of Gerhard and grandson of Carl Johan, who acted as prince regent for the boy.
"It did sound graceful, from the way Anna-Laura described it," Leslie agreed. "At any rate, I guess I'll have to find a way to contact Father and let him know about it. I promised Anna-Laura I'd get back in touch with her as soon as I was able to do that."
Finally Christian focused directly on her. "Where exactly is your father? I know it's been at least several days since you last spoke with him."
"Not since the day of the press conference," she said, shaking her head. She referred to a press conference they had held with Carl Johan on January 23, advising the jordiska people that Christian and the other clan members who were kidnapped had been rescued. "I asked Delphine about that. She said he left word with her that he had to be in on the trial of the goons for everything they did to you and the other men."
"Ah, yes, the trial." Christian smiled grimly. "If it works anything like it does with us mere humans, I hope that entire gang has the proverbial law book thrown at them—their sadistic leader in particular." He closed his eyes for a moment, then shook his head hard, as if trying to shake off some disturbing memory. "I'd have liked to have told your father that if he needed any testimony from me, I'd be more than glad to give it."
Leslie grinned. "I'd have asked to be there just to see it." That got her a laugh from him, and she chuckled and pushed his plate back toward him. "Finish that, my love. You've got a lot of muscle to put back on those bones."
Christian regarded the plate and muttered, "I can't eat much more, I'm afraid. My time with those goons must have shrunk my stomach." He looked up and smiled at her. "But I'll try, just for you."
"Done, Mommy," Anastasia announced then, raising the bowl that had contained grömmagraut, a cream porridge that was a jordisk specialty derived from a similar Norwegian dish. It was Karina's favorite, and Anastasia liked it as well.
Leslie smiled again and took the bowl. "Good girl. Want to watch some Katrina Kattunga?" She referred to a jordisk cartoon show for small children; the triplets had once been fans, and now Anastasia liked to watch it. The little girl nodded, and Leslie helped her out of her chair and took her to the living room, putting in a DVD for her before returning to the kitchen and starting to clear the table.
"What time does Stasia have to be at her daycare?" Christian asked.
Leslie checked her watch. "Half an hour or so. Why do you ask?"
"No special reason. I know you were considering taking her out of it, since you used to have the triplets with you when you were working for your father." He regarded her with a wistful look. "But I've missed having time alone with you."
"Christian," she said softly, "you're still weak..."
His smile was slow and knowing. "Don't give me that," he said. "Perhaps I don't have the stamina I might need for longer sessions with you, but fate take it, it's been some two months since we last made love, I think. It's beginning to tell on me."
She grinned. "Well, maybe we can work out something. Come to think of it, you have an appointment to see Dr. Lambert anyway, remember? She wanted to assess the progress of your recovery."
"I'd forgotten. Well, then, perhaps I'll ask her about it," he said slyly.
"You rogue," Leslie groaned, half laughing, watching him grin. "Well, in that case, you really had better finish your breakfast." That made him roll his eyes, but they were both laughing softly. It felt good to fall into their old banter; somehow it made things feel normal, a condition that had been extremely elusive ever since they'd discovered Christian's power. It was hard to believe that had been only eight months before; for both of them, it felt as if half a lifetime had passed since the day Leslie had been bludgeoned to death by a volatile and violent woman, only to be brought back to life quite by chance by Christian when he had been allowed a few minutes alone with her to say goodbye. Their lives had become so radically different afterward that sometimes Leslie felt as though the days preceding the discovery of the power had been a dream.
Thinking of the incident reminded her of the woman's husband and daughter, the reason she had attacked Leslie in the first place. It had been quite some time now since she had heard from, or even of, Hjalmar and Sorina Lindblom; she had asked them to the island the previous summer because they had turned out to be members of another clan that had been believed to be extinct—one that could travel back into time, though only as observers without the ability to alter anything. She had wanted to alert her father about the existence of the clan, even if it turned out that Hjalmar and Sorina were the only two members left on the planet. But after Leslie had been attacked by Hjalmar's abusive and domineering wife, Olida, he and Sorina had returned to Lilla Jordsö and disappeared. Sorina had been a classmate of young Toria Enstad—Gerhard's daughter—who herself was a member of still another clan, the Liljefors family, with the ability to influence thoughts and emotions. Leslie found herself wondering just how many clans were really out there, both known and unknown, and hoped she'd have a chance to contact her father at some point and ask him for more details on the clans and their origins.
She finished clearing the table, teasingly praising Christian for cleaning his plate at long last, and began to load the dishwasher. All of a sudden she heard a loud, sharp belch from the table, and snapped up straight, whirling to stare at him.
Christian's expression was about as sheepish as she'd ever seen him look. "My apologies," he said through a deep, relieved sigh. "Very un-princelike, I know."
"I never heard you burp like that before," she said, startled. "Tobias keeps trying to, ever since he and Kevin started hanging out together again—but you?"
Christian lifted one eyebrow above the other, an Enstad family quirk. "I told you I ate too much." He smirked when she folded her arms over her chest with mock reproval. "It so happens that I feel better now. Just be glad our son wasn't here to hear that."
In spite of herself she burst out laughing, and he joined her, rising from his chair and coming over to hug her. "Here, let me at least hand you the dirty dishes," he said, kissing her cheek, "and for fate's sake, don't try to stop me. I have a doctor to see...and to ask a certain question of." His wink renewed her chortles, and he laughed again in response, turning to the sink and beginning to hand out plates, utensils, cups and bowls.
About an hour later, after dropping off Anastasia at the preschool/daycare where she had a friend, Mallory Ryerson, Christian and Leslie stopped in at the elegant white Queen-Anne-style house that was the office for the resort Leslie's father had built and operated on the eastern end of the island for many years before a forced retirement. The business was now operated by Delphine Randolph, the older of Leslie's father's two goddaughters; Delphine's sister Julie was married to Rogan Callaghan, who was Leslie's second cousin. Leslie was in fact an adoptee, her biological parents and her younger twin sisters having died in a catastrophic house fire when she was thirteen. Since coming here and being adopted, she had seen, experienced and even taken part in a great many things that she would never have believed if it hadn't been for the fact that her father and his island had a well-known reputation the world over. The catch was that he had couched it under the category of fantasy, so that those who came to see their wildest dreams brought to life never suspected that, just for a weekend, they had actually lived an alternate existence. This was the guise under which the island operated—not just as a unique getaway resort, but also as a haven for those things the rest of the world dismissed as either myth or extinct.
Delphine looked up from the desk when Christian and Leslie stepped into the elegant study that hadn't changed from the days when Leslie's father had presided here. "Hi," she said questioningly. "I thought Christian had a doctor's appointment."
"Not till this afternoon," Leslie said, and Delphine nodded. "Listen, have you had any news of Father? I know he's one of the judges at the goons' trial, but we have some questions for him, and I was hoping he might have some spare time."
"I'm not sure," Delphine said slowly. She met Leslie's gaze. "It's not like I'm a clan member, remember? The MacNabbs are only an ordinary earth family that happened to be blessed by the leprechauns." She said this in a comical Irish accent, mimicking her brother-in-law Rogan, who still possessed a brogue of greatly varying intensity according to his mood. When Christian and Leslie chuckled, she added, "I could always check with Rogan, if you need to know that badly."
"Go ahead," Leslie agreed, and Delphine picked up the phone.
"Leprechauns?" Christian repeated low.
Leslie grinned. "Julie told me the story once. Some distant ancestor of theirs managed to capture a leprechaun, and he insisted his family and descendants be granted magical powers just like the 'wee people' had. He got his wish, but the leprechaun added a twist—if you're born after your parents are 40 years old, you don't get the powers. Which is why Delphine has them but Julie doesn't."
"Intriguing," Christian said, eyebrow aloft again. "So tell me...has anyone here seen a leprechaun, since I'm sure they must have long ago vacated Ireland?"
Leslie let out a laugh, but had no chance to reply before Delphine hung up and turned to them. "Rogan said uncle's deeply involved in the trial, but if it's that much of an emergency, he can come over and help augment your summons."
"No, it's not that urgent," Leslie said. "I'd rather see those goons securely locked up. But I hope Father comes back and tells us what the goon leader's ultimate motive was."
"I'm sure he will," Delphine said. "So...anything else I can do for you?"
Leslie paused, searching her mind; Christian, however, cleared his throat. "I suppose it's as good a time as any to let you know. Leslie and I have officially made the decision to move back here to the island." Delphine's eyes widened and her face lit with surprise, and he smiled. "If you're still in need of an assistant, she's available."
Leslie's head came up, her cheeks blooming crimson. "Oh, Christian, you didn't have to do that..." she protested, though her voice was faint.
Delphine grinned while Christian smirked at his wife. "You seemed in no special hurry to ask about it, and I was certain that had to be one reason we came here."
"It never even crossed my mind!" Leslie exclaimed.
He sat back with a huge grin splitting his features, arms folded over his chest, hazel eyes sparkling with glee. "Liar."
When Leslie's eyes narrowed, Delphine laughed and raised both hands. "Okay, okay, you two, that'll do! Matter of fact, it just so happens that I never did take on an assistant." She intercepted Leslie's disbelieving stare with a shrug. "Well, Rogan was always coming in with his concoctions, and it was just as easy to send him off to do other things too. Lately he's been complaining at me that if he wanted to be my assistant, he'd have formally applied for the job. Really, Leslie, take it already. I know you miss it, and you'll earn Rogan's eternal gratitude."
"For at least the third time," Leslie remarked archly, and both Delphine and Christian burst into laughter. "But really, Rogan can't have done everything the assistant normally does. Didn't you have anyone else?"
"Actually, no. My last kid left for college in September, and that took out that source of cheap labor. Greg and I turned your old room into a guest room; there's a twin bed in there, a night table and a desk, so if you decide you want to have Anastasia here while you're at work and she needs a nap, she'll have a place to sleep. I realize you're the owner of this entire island, Leslie, and you have a lot to do, keeping up with all the administrative stuff and making sure everybody who lives here has a good quality of life. But even that won't take up all your time. Anyway, the assistant's job tends more toward scheduling guests for the business, and checking up on them when they're actually here, than anything else, so it'd just be weekend work for you." She peered at Christian and added, "That'd give you a chance to whip your employees back into shape, too."
"Right now I don't have the strength to lift a whip, let alone crack it, and I'm afraid they know it," Christian remarked, earning more laughs. "On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with my voice or my supervising abilities, and I admit it might be fun to tinker a bit with computers and dabble in website-designing again. It would be a welcome change from all the madness we've endured for the last several months."
"Then why are you sitting around talking about it?" Delphine asked. "Seems to me you should've already been convinced and getting started."
Leslie smirked at her. "Like you really needed to hear me say yes. But I have a feeling there'll be a lot of other stuff I'll end up getting mixed up in—not just Father's business, which you've taken over, but all this stuff regarding the clans. Father was the first member of any clan I ever encountered, of course, but then I met my friend Frida, who belongs to another clan...and then Christian's probably the third one, though we didn't know it till last year. And it was the discovery of Christian's power that opened up all this investigation into the various clans and what they can do." She thought a moment, then turned to Christian and asked, "Do you remember when Father told us about his origins, finally?"
Christian nodded, seeing immediately what she was getting at. "Yes—he listed six groups with discrete abilities, two of which he told us were extinct. And as you know, one of those supposedly extinct clans was the one with the ability to restore life to the dead."
"Right," said Leslie, leaning forward in her chair. "Father was telling us what he had learned from his parents, or someone else, in his youth, I'd presume. He was able to tell us only what he knew, what he'd been taught. Who's to say that there really were only six clans? If a group thought to be extinct could turn out to still exist after all, who's to say that it was only six clans, with six separate abilities, that ended up hitching a ride from their old planet to this one?"
"More than six clans?" Christian mused. "I suppose it makes sense..."
"How do you figure that?" Delphine wanted to know.
"Well, consider some of the things humans have wished they could do, for countless centuries. Raising the dead, healing any and every ailment, getting what they want just by wishing it up—Father gave that ability once to a group of college frat boys, and wow, what an insane weekend that was." Leslie grinned, while Delphine and Christian traded interested glances; neither had been there at the time. "Anyway, not just that, but lots of legendary beings, like dragons, mermaids, fairies and leprechauns and gnomes, even trolls. There's no telling how many of these are just fable and how many might be real, or maybe were real at one time but all died out before the modern era. You're not too likely to find people in Scandinavia who not only claim they saw a troll but can prove it, or people in Ireland who can prove they caught a leprechaun, or people in Japan who can prove they were nearly drowned in some creek by a kappa. Maybe some of these were earth humans' interpretation of disguises or protective forms taken on by newly arrived clans."
Christian regarded his wife with a slight sense of trepidation. "If you get too deeply into that, my Rose, you'll not have time for your other occupations."
"That's why I want to talk to Father. I know I have other responsibilities, but I want to investigate this too, when I can. Father could do a good bit of the legwork, but at the same time, I want to be able to..." Leslie hesitated, her brain leaping light-years ahead of her ability to articulate her thoughts. "Eventually I'd like to have this island set up as a haven for clan members who feel persecuted or that they don't fit in where they are now. There's that empty little village where the island utilities have their headquarters. There used to be a group of people from New England originally, who had come here because of odd beliefs they had and felt ostracized and targeted for them. They left after a guest from the outside came, fell in love with one of their girls, and showed them that the world had progressed since those days. They gradually left the island and resettled, probably back in New England for all I know. It left the entire village empty. A few folks have moved into some of the houses there, but there are a lot of vacancies yet. So we do have some housing resources, if we're careful about them. The point here is that people who descend from the clans should be able to feel that they have a safe place to go, and I want to provide that place. And there may be representatives of more clans than we, or even Father, knew about. So I want to find out who's out there and what abilities they might have."
"Well, you've sure got your work cut out for you in that case," Delphine observed. "I see what you're getting at, but it's a hell of a project. Maybe you should start small, and closer to home. Christian's not the only one with his power, not even in your own family, am I right? And there's that young man who brought Christian back to life last weekend. So obviously there're plenty of folks just in this one clan alone, and there's a helluva lot you don't know about them or what they can do. Start small and gradually branch out, Leslie, and take it easy. You have all the time in the world." She paused, as if considering her own words, then added with a wry grimace, "Maybe literally, come to think of it. Christian can keep you alive indefinitely, and that kid who brought him back can do the same for him."
Christian nodded. "True. And it's not just our clan, with this ability. My great-niece Toria happens to possess the abilities of the clan her mother comes from—the Liljefors clan, with the power to influence thoughts and emotions. They've been ostracized for centuries, even after being granted permanent protection by one of our past kings. They keep to themselves, but Liselotta brought them into the limelight after she and Gerhard got together. And now that Liselotta's dead and Gerhard's locked away, Toria is our family representative of the clan: she has Liselotta's abilities; and if Gerhard hadn't had it, she would have been able to pass the Kullenäs power down to her offspring. Even though she can't do that, she still has clan blood on both sides."
"Do you think she'll need protecting, my love?" Leslie asked.
"It's possible, but I don't know how much influence we can have. Remember, after all, she's my brother's grandchild, and with one parent dead and the other permanently disabled, she's in Carl Johan's custody. She's had enough upheaval in her life, and she's only eight years old. I'd never insist he send her here even for her own protection. We're royal; we always have security, bodyguards, that sort of thing." He shrugged. "On the other hand, either she or your friend Frida could be a window to communicating with the Liljefors clan, to make them aware that they do have somewhere else they can go if they wish."
"You know this island isn't big enough to accommodate every member of every clan," Delphine cautioned. "And if Leslie's right about there being more clans than uncle thought, that just increases the numbers exponentially."
Leslie shook her head. "I doubt they'll all come flocking here. You've heard stories of people who live in places where they get lots of tornadoes, or they're earthquake-prone, or things like that. People ask them why they don't move someplace less vulnerable, and you hear them say that where they are is home, no matter the danger. There's no reason to think clan people would be less likely to feel that way than plain old humans. A lot will stay put, but some will come here—and we'll be ready to welcome them."
"Okay," Delphine said, lifting her chin from her hand where she had propped it while listening to Leslie's rationale. "You're the Big Boss, so what you say goes. But for right now, it'll have to wait. I don't know how long uncle will be involved in those goons' trial, so all we can do is wait till we get some word from him. If you're not here when it happens, I'll let you know as soon as I do hear from him. Then you can tell him your theory, and we'll see what comes out of it, if anything."
"I'm trying to remember which clans Father listed," Leslie murmured, reaching for a scratch pad and a pen as she spoke. "The Liljefors clan, with the thoughts and emotions; the Kullenäs clan, with the power to raise the dead; and the Callaghans, with the power to manipulate matter however they want to."
Delphine looked surprised. "I thought it was under uncle's name."
"Used to be, but Father was the last of the clan by that name, and Rogan said he told him that now that he was with the tribunal, the clan should go by the Callaghan name from now on. So anyway, that's three of the six..."
"I seem to recall that two others had close and unusual affinity for, and rapport with, animals and plants, respectively. So that's five, but I'm not certain of the last..." Christian's voice trailed off as both he and Leslie struggled to recall.
Then Leslie sat up. "Oh—there was supposed to be a clan that could create matter from nothing at all. The only reason I thought of that is that Father said the Callaghan clan could manipulate matter, which is something else separate from creating it—but I thought he must have some of that clan in his background somewhere, because I'm pretty sure I can remember him creating things from nowhere."
"Interesting," Delphine said.
"There's a seventh clan, then," Christian put in, sitting up and catching Leslie's rapt attention. "You may recall Jindara, who was supposed to help us diagnose and perhaps heal Briella when Gerhard and some of the other clan members and I managed to bring her back for a while. Your father said she was a member of a healer clan."
"But it was the animal-healing clan," Leslie pointed out. "I remember what she told us when we first met her. She said the, uh, 'people-healers' died back on their old planet."
"Geez," Delphine muttered. "That's like asking a vet to do an annual checkup on a kid. You think maybe that's why Queen Gabriella's mind was damaged, and Prince Gerhard's too? I mean, you never know."
"I don't think so," Leslie mused. "She admitted to having done what she did to them because she thought she was going to get some kind of reward from the goon leader. Besides that, she told us the animal healers had trained themselves to apply their skills to people, so it's not like she didn't know what she was doing."
"True. Well, all right—so we have six clans we know of for certain, one of which is no longer in existence, to the best of everyone's knowledge." Christian pondered for a few seconds, then shrugged. "I think from this point, my Rose, we'll have to wait for your father to get a little free time to speak with us. Just for now, perhaps we should get ready to go to Dr. Lambert's office. We'll have a bit of a wait, but better early than late."
They departed, taking the walk to Dr. Lambert's office from the main house. Leslie kept a surreptitious eye on her husband as he walked, but Christian was clearly enjoying the stroll, breathing deeply of the fresh, exotically scented tropical air. After a minute he caught her watching him and grinned. "Making sure I don't fall?"
Leslie laughed. "Not so much that, just watching you taking the air. At least it's clear you're gaining some strength back."
"Mm-hmm," Christian agreed, "although it'll be a while before I can go back to doing those periodic runs on the beach as I used to." He seemed to remember something and shook his head. "Speaking of the beach—we completely forgot Dr. Lambert's instructions to take walks along the beach with the children, to help build up Vitamin D."
"That's right," Leslie realized. "Oh boy...I hope she doesn't think to ask us about it. But we could count this walk, right? The sun's out, and we'll be another ten minutes or so in getting there, so that ought to give us both a good dose."
"Perhaps afterward, we should walk all the way over to the town square and surprise my employees here," Christian mused with a wicked little grin. "They don't know yet that we're going to return here permanently, so I'll have to tell them the party's over."
"Rogue," Leslie said through a laugh. "Well, come on then. Lucky for me I brought over those other immigration applications. Honestly, I think they're the first ones I've seen since Father left me the island."
"You've clearly already processed Torfinn's," Christian remarked, chuckling. "I don't suppose any of the rest appear to be clan people."
"It didn't look that way at first glance, but you can help me get a better look and see what you think. I wish I had something to tell your sister. It's amazing how upset she was about Staffan. I hope Roald and Adriana are taking it better."
‡ ‡ ‡
Roald could see at a glance that Adriana was distraught; she huddled in a chair in the living room of the suite they shared, eyeing their firstborn son with what looked like exaggerated wariness from under a blanket she was clutching tightly around her shoulders. The child was oblivious, fortunately, playing in the corner with a small collection of dinosaur figures. "Where'd you leave Johan-Erik and Markus?" he kidded gently.
"They are playing in their room," said Adriana distantly, an eagle eye on Staffan as if she were waiting for him to commit some gruesome little deed. "I...wanted to keep them from their brother."
Roald stared at her. "What the hell for?"
Adriana turned huge liquid dark eyes on him. She was still an unusually beautiful young woman at nearly thirty-one; her soft black hair and her dusky skin had always been an exotic turn-on for Roald, and though she had gained a kilo or two with each pregnancy, she still had a lush figure that could make his knees give out. She was the only daughter of the late King Errico V of Arcolos, and the product of a sheltered, pampered upbringing that still shone through when she was under stress for any reason. She still believed in too many superstitions for Roald's taste; she had improved to some extent during the years since their marriage, but he had learned to try to brace himself for the next oddball idea she tossed out at him from left field. He could see in the depths of those dark-chocolate eyes that he was about to be treated to another one. "I've spawned a monster," she whispered at him. "All I wished was to bear your babies, but never did I think you would be a part of some...some evil witch clan."
Roald gaped at her. "Are you freaking kidding me? What's gotten into you? It's not an 'evil witch clan' at all, for one thing, and for another, I'm not the one with the power."
"He got it through you," Adriana reminded him, and now he could see a small manic light begin to flare up in her eyes. "You are the one who was born to that clan, not I. It's an evil magic he possesses, he and your cousin and your uncle, and all the others in that clan."
"You didn't think so when you were helping us try to guilt Uncle Christian into bringing Gerhard back to life," Roald noted, his tone flinty. He had known Adriana to be superstitious before, but it had never manifested itself as strongly as he was seeing happen now. For the first time he wondered exactly who she really was. They had married mere weeks after they had first met, for Adriana had been infatuated with him for some time and had won him over the night they'd met, enough that he'd taken her virginity that same night and fallen under her spell. They had made it work so far, despite the odd personality quirks that were relics of her Arcolosian childhood; but he had never thought she would go so far as to evince fear—and perhaps even loathing—of their own child.
"It wasn't my child doing the resurrecting!" Adriana shrilled. In the corner, Staffan turned to stare at them.
"And so now that it is, you've decided he's the devil's spawn or some other idiotic nonsense of that sort, have you?" Roald retorted, glaring at her. "Fate take it, Adriana, I thought you'd finally outgrown most of those stupid superstitions." He finally noticed fully that Staffan was listening; at five now, the boy was old enough to know when he was being talked about. "Look at him, for fate's sake. He's no fool; he knows he's the subject under discussion here."
Adriana stared up at him; at that point there was a knock on the door, and Roald spun toward it. "Who's that?"
"Your parents," he heard his father's voice respond. "One of the servants had an issue to bring up with us on our way there, or we would have been right behind you."
"Come on in," he said. The door opened and admitted Esbjörn and Anna-Laura, and Roald added, "Maybe you can help me talk sense into my wife."
Adriana shot to her feet. "I need no one to 'talk sense' into me!" she shouted. "You should have told me from the beginning that you are a member of this clan, and there is this power! You held a secret from me all this time! You are..." She sputtered for a few seconds, then resumed berating him, this time in her native Arcolosian.
"Adriana," Anna-Laura broke in sharply, gesturing to the frightened little boy in the corner. "Stop it! You're scaring Staffan."
"He scares me!" Adriana railed. "I don't want any more to do with him." She turned to Roald. "No human being should ever possess a power that only gods are privy to! That boy is some sort of...demon, yes, that is what he is! You held it secret, this power!"
"Oh, for fate's bloody sake," Roald roared back, "you know damn well we had no idea about the thing when you and I first met. And by the way, as I recall, you're the one who seduced me. You're the one who talked me into that first night together so that I had no choice but to marry you. I tell you, Adriana, you've pulled some inane stunts, but this one must really take the cake. Renouncing your own son that way!"
"Your son, not mine!" Adriana shrieked.
"Out," Roald spat, pointing at the door. "Out! Get out of my sight. Right now I don't want anything to do with you. Out!"
Adriana glared at him and flounced out of the suite without looking back; by then, Anna-Laura had gone over to Staffan, kneeling beside the crying child and trying to soothe him. Esbjörn watched Roald try to catch his breath, then tossed a glance at the door through which Adriana had departed before shaking his head. "That's a bad sign."
"I don't like it myself," Roald growled. "We've had dustups before, and they're usually over stupid things—her jealousy when she thought I might be seeing someone else for some reason, her insistence on reading brainless tabloid magazines, the way she sees ghosts and imps in the dark, the crazy ideas she was instilled with when she was growing up. And now this business. I could put up with the rest, but this is going too far."
Anna-Laura, cuddling her grandson, studied him. "What are you going to do?"
"Wait and see if she comes to her senses, I guess," muttered Roald, shaking his head. "It blows my mind that she believes that weird witch-hunt crap. It's the twenty-first freaking century, for fate's sake. It's astounding, the moronic things people insist on believing in, especially when they want proof for everything else." He looked up at his father. "She wasn't afraid of the power when Gerhard had it, or when Uncle Christian was demonstrating it. She didn't denounce either of them as 'demon spawn'. But now that it's Staffan, she's gone right off the deep end, out of nowhere."
"I wonder if Queen Michiko, or either of Adriana's brothers, is aware of this tendency she has toward the melodramatic," Esbjörn mused.
"I'd be astounded if they weren't," commented Anna-Laura tartly, leading Staffan to a chair and lifting the tearful boy into her lap after sitting down. "Calm down, Staffan lilla, it's all right. No one will hurt you, I promise."
"Damn right they won't, not if I have anything to say about it," Roald announced stridently. "Maybe I should get hold of Paolono and have a little talk with him." Paolono, Adriana's older brother, was the current king of Arcolos; he and Roald were the same age, and had become friends as well as brothers-in-law. "I'd love to know what he thinks of his sister's ideas...if he thinks they're reeking piles of fishtails like I do."
Esbjörn and Anna-Laura cast each other quick, wry little smiles. "Perhaps it'd be advisable to see if we can test Johan-Erik and Markus," Anna-Laura noted, "and then come clean to Adriana, so that she can decide whether to come to her senses or not."
"Test them?" Roald repeated blankly.
"For the power," his mother said, and he nodded.
"You know..." he began, frowning, pondering. "It's been a good while since we had a vacation. I tell you what—whenever we hear from Aunt Leslie, I'm going to invite myself and the boys to her island. Maybe she can figure out a way to test Johan-Erik and Markus, and in the meantime we'll all have a little fun and get out of this icebox we live in."
"That's all very well and fine, Roald Helmer Olaf," his mother observed with another wry smile, "but Adriana may have something to say about it."
Roald snorted and scoffed, "I don't much care, right now. Not after what she just did. If she decides to run home to Arcolos, I won't be very surprised, and I'm sure not gonna try to stop her." He caught his father's look. "Yeah, yeah, I know, I'm a hothead. But mor used to say I came by it fair and square, since Uncle Arnulf and Uncle Christian both had tempers, and I got a nice fat dose of both of them."
Anna-Laura shook her head, chuckling softly despite herself. "Arnulf wasn't known for his temper, but he certainly had a short fuse, especially when it came to Christian. He'd treat anything else with cool disapproval, but Christian could set him off in no time at all. There were times when I wondered whether Arnulf really cared at all about Christian; he seemed to show only an icy contempt for him all the time."
"Yeah, I know," Roald remembered. King Arnulf II, the older brother of Carl Johan, Anna-Laura and Christian, had been dead for over a decade, twice as long as he had held the jordisk throne; but he was remembered with little fondness by anyone other than his two surviving daughters, Anna-Kristina and Margareta, both of whom were married and lived outside the castle. "I get the feeling that I got more of Uncle Christian's temper than Uncle Arnulf's. I remember hearing morfar say once, when I was a kid, that Uncle Arnulf was a glacier and Uncle Christian was a volcano."
Anna-Laura burst into laughter at this reference to her father, the first King Arnulf. "I had no idea Father could be so poetic. I'll have to remember to tell Christian that." She turned to her son. "Don't make any hasty decisions, Roald. Wait at least till we hear from Leslie and until Adriana's had some time to think. Perhaps she'll come to realize on her own that she's acting irrationally."
Roald let out a deep sigh. "Well, if she doesn't—and if she decides to go back to Arcolos—I think I'll file for divorce. I could put up with all her shenanigans up till now, but when she treats an innocent child like that, I have to draw the line."
"But Roald, she's pregnant," Anna-Laura pointed out.
"I know," he said heavily. "It'd be the first royal divorce of its kind in this country, and I have to wonder what the courts will say, if it gets down to that."
"Does she know you're thinking that way?" Esbjörn asked.
"No, but it's not like I haven't been considering it for a little while," Roald said slowly. "I mean...every time she does that..." He cleared his throat and gave his parents a sheepish look. "And it isn't just that. She's even more sheltered than I thought, more childish, more ready to believe in things that don't exist—and to assume they're always evil, too." He saw his oldest son's gaze trained solidly on him, and took a chair. "Hey, kiddo, come on over here, huh? You feeling better?"
"A little," mumbled Staffan, climbing into Roald's lap. "Pappa...does Madi hate me?" All three Lagnebring boys used the Arcolosian term for "mother", something Adriana herself had cultivated in her sons.
The question startled the boy's father and grandparents, and they all looked at one another uneasily before Roald pulled in a slow breath, trying to find a response. "I can't really answer that. The only one who can tell you that is your mother. But I think maybe she's just afraid of what you can do."
Staffan peered up at him. "I made that bird alive again. Isn't that the same thing that Great-Uncle Christian did when he made Cousin Gerhard alive again?"
"That's exactly the same thing, yes," Roald assured him, nodding. "And it's a good thing to be able to do. But it can also be a problem, because there are bad people who'd take advantage of that. Like all those bad guys who took Great-Uncle Christian away with them back in December. It's a special power, and most people don't have it, so you have something different and unusual. The thing is, you can't go around bringing every dead bird you see back to life. Especially not where people can see you do it."
"How come?" asked Staffan.
"Because they might do what your mother did, and say terrible things," Roald said. "You don't want that, and I sure don't."
"Is Madi gonna come back, or is she going back to Arcolos?" Staffan wanted to know. "Is she gonna tell everybody there that I can make birds alive again?"
Roald shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "She'd better not," he muttered, primarily to himself, before focusing on his son. "I don't know, but we'll have to see. But you know what? I think we might be going to Great-Aunt Leslie's island soon. We need a vacation, and Great-Aunt Leslie's father might be able to tell us more about your power, so you know when to use it and when to keep it a secret."
"That'll be fun," Staffan said eagerly. "Then I can play with Tobias. Matti said I'm just a little kid. It's not fair...just 'cause he's the king and all..."
Roald grinned. "That's just Matti being Matti. Okay, I'll let you know if we get to go. Go run in and make sure Johan-Erik and Markus aren't getting into any trouble." Staffan nodded, slid off his lap and ran into the adjoining suite that the three little boys shared.
"I wish Leslie would call," Anna-Laura murmured, sighing. "That power is splitting this family apart in all sorts of ways. Carl Johan and Amalia, the tragedy of Gerhard and Liselotta, and now perhaps you and Adriana."
Roald studied her. "Just out of curiosity, mor...did you think I made a mistake when I decided to marry her?"
Anna-Laura resettled herself, gathering her thoughts. "I don't think it was a mistake, exactly. I simply felt you were moving far too quickly. You two barely knew each other and you were suddenly engaged. Granted, I suspect that was due in some part to the archaic laws of Arcolos, particularly those concerning females—I seem to recall your having said that Adriana made it clear her father would marry her off to the man who took her virginity, so that she saw to it that it would be you, having set her sights on you."
Roald peered at her. "Mor, I'm not so immature that I don't realize I bear at least some of the responsibility. I could have said no, after all." His memory lit with the recollection of the night of a spring ball, almost seven years before, when he'd formally met Adriana for the first time and she had seduced him in the atrium in the small hours. It had been no hardship for him; she was fashion-model beautiful without being a stick figure, and her earnest, seductive innocence had woven a spell around him. He blinked the memory away and focused on his parents with a half-grin. "I was thinking with my hormones that night."
Esbjörn grinned back. "Trust me, son, it's a timeworn tradition. Well, don't make any hasty decisions right now. Wait and see what Adriana does, and we'll wait to hear from Leslie, and then you can make plans accordingly." He consulted his watch briefly. "I think I'd better find Carl Johan and see what's on the agenda in parliament tomorrow." He kissed Anna-Laura's cheek on his way out.
Anna-Laura and Roald watched him leave; then she turned to her son and asked, very gently, "Just one question, Roald. Are you still in love with Adriana, or has that died?"
Roald stared motionlessly at her for about three seconds, then went limp in the chair while he considered it. She waited patiently, rocking in the recliner she sat in. After several long, silent minutes, Roald focused on her and said slowly, "I don't really know anymore. I was probably in love with her when we got married...or at least, I think I was. Maybe it was infatuation. Or maybe lust." He rolled his eyes with exaggerated annoyance at this, and Anna-Laura let out a huff of amusement. "But whatever it was, it's been fading away. It'll hurt if we split up, but not as much as I might have thought. And not as much as it'll hurt the boys, especially Staffan."
Anna-Laura nodded. "He'll think it's his fault if you do," she pointed out.
"You really think so?" asked Roald, startled.
"Unfortunately, yes. Think of it: none of the rest of us noticed anything untoward in your relationship with Adriana, and children see even less; they wouldn't know anything was wrong to begin with. Now Adriana's made it ridiculously obvious that she's terrified of Staffan's power and even thinks it's evil. She said as much, in terms even a child his age can understand with little trouble. If she leaves and you begin divorce proceedings, as surely as little fish hatch from eggs, he'll be convinced it was all because of him."
Roald slumped again in his chair, his face a mask of gloom. "Great. Well, isn't that just what I need to hear." He peered at her. "Do you think he'll believe me if I try to explain to him that it wasn't his fault at all?"
"That, only Staffan can answer for you. But don't be too hasty in doing anything. Let the next move be Adriana's. She seems an intelligent enough girl, and I should hope she can overcome the oddities of her upbringing and the culture in which she was raised, to look at things more rationally and with more compassion, especially toward Staffan." Anna-Laura let out a quiet sigh, then sat up a bit. "Perhaps you and I both should try talking to your uncle Christian, not so much for advice, but to ask if you can bring the boys to your aunt Leslie's island for an indeterminate time."
Roald grinned. "That suits me. Maybe we should make it a Skype session. I can text Uncle Christian and ask if he's up for that, and then we can set a time."
"In that case, go ahead. Let me know what you hear, and if you feel so inclined, you could remind him that Leslie promised to call and we'd appreciate an update." She got to her feet. "And for now, just put Adriana out of your mind. As we said, the next move is hers, and till she makes it, you shouldn't bother worrying about it."