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Three brothers fair:
One for the land, one for the sea,
And one for the air.
Golden, chestnut, and jet of hair,
Three brothers to unite the kingdoms:
Land, sea, and air.
Innocent one, quiet and wise,
Foolish one in another’s guise,
And third, the Destroyer and Spy.
Happiness for three,
But greater the Lady’s Power will be.
— from The Lady’s Words, translated by Lord Andrew Cuirm Weinberg
Comfortable in the high-backed armchair, Hans watched his brothers.
“The hair dye won’t stay for more than a few hours.” Tian grimaced at his reflection. “Andy, what the hell’m I supposed to do?”
Andy didn’t look away from the book on his desk. “You could start by not croaking like a new-hatched chick.”
The armchair was positioned in a corner, well out of the way of the teasing and annoyance that always flew between Tian and Andrew Weinberg. With a mug to warm his hands, Hans smirked. He loved listening to his brothers bicker without true heat.
Tian stalked over to the desk and gave one of its legs a hard kick.
The book jumped, but Andy didn’t react.
“What’m I gonna do?” Tian’s voice rose. “He’s a hideous, self-centered water demon.”
“Is there any other kind?” Hans asked, his voice barely audible to his own ears. Although he thought Prince Felimid mac Lugh rather attractive for a water demon. Yes, his skin tended to resemble that of an eczema sufferer when he walked in air-breather form, but his grace when he swam… Hans drank deeply of his tea in an effort to hide the flush of his cheeks with the liquid’s heat. In an effort to distract himself, he considered the archaic form of the prince’s last name. Mac meant “son of.” And lugh was some sort of sea god. The space between both names wasn’t common anymore, but from what Hans knew, the mac Lughs were a highly traditional people.
Tian stomped back to the mirror and whined, “Andrew, help me.”
“You’re pathetic.” But Andy got up from his desk at last and crossed to Tian. “You know our bodies don’t hold human chemicals well. Why did you waste time trying?”
Hans watched as Andy flicked a hand through Tian’s hair. Gray dye flaked off into the air and dropped to the carpet.
“Were you thinking to pretend you’re an ancient mortal?” Andy raked his fingers over the part in Tian’s chestnut mass. “The prince — or at least his parents — know we’re triplets. The moment Hans and I walk into the room, your secret will be out.”
Color blazed high in Tian’s cheeks, but his voice carried less prissy outrage and more fear. “I wanted to make myself unattractive to him. I’m too young to be married off this way.”
“Too young by whose standards? We’ve been eighteen for almost six months. Most of our cousins were married within a moon cycle once they reached their eighteenth year.” In spite of his pitiless words, Andy put an arm around Tian’s shoulders. “You’re attracted to males in general, if not this specific prince, and that’s more than many an intended bride or groom can claim.” He lowered his voice. “And you’re no stranger to sex.”
Assured that he was still being ignored, Hans grinned. Tian was the second of their trio to be born. He’d always played the part of middle child even though he’d broken shell a scant three minutes after Andy. Tian went on the adventures, got into more trouble than Andy and Hans together, and was able to maintain an erection many months before his nest siblings. Of course he’d gotten laid first. Andy often played the role of older brother. He had also enjoyed a coupling or two, although he’d waited until he turned eighteen.
Hans pressed his lips together when Tian spun to bury his head against Andy’s shoulder. That leaves me to play the virginal shadow. It was either that or act the part of the weak but intensely intelligent youngest one. He wasn’t quite fit for that. Not when he enjoyed swimming and diving so much but couldn’t manage to learn more than one language besides his own.
“Shh, shh, it will be all right.” Andy rubbed Tian’s back. “He’s a good match for you: brave, strong, and playful. I’ve heard –”
Tian shoved his way out of Andy’s arms. “You go marry him if you’re so convinced he’s wonderful.” He went to the desk and kicked its leg again. “I want a chance to pick my own ball and chain. We’re immortal, Andy. Hasn’t it occurred to you that I’ll be trapped in this marriage for the rest of my life? A thousand years from now, I’ll be stuck with someone I’ve never — could never — want.”
“I’ll take your place.” Tian and Andy whirled toward him, and only then did Hans realize he’d spoken loud enough for them to hear. Blushing under their regard, he refused to back down. He’d always been told the sons of Lord Cuirm and Lady Weinberg must say what they meant and mean what they said. So he raised his chin and balanced his mug on one knee. “I find Prince Felimid attractive.”
Tian’s expression, startled at first, morphed into one of amusement. “Hans, I love you. You’re a selfless li’l thing with a tragic heroine’s heart.”
“Don’t call me li’l thing.” But he couldn’t put any heat behind his voice. Andy and Tian were the warriors; he was only the shadow.
Andy sighed and returned to his desk. “It’s a kind gesture, Hans-a-la, but Tian can’t accept.”
“Why not?” Now Tian’s attention was back on Andy. “Not that I would put our li’l thing” — he smirked over his shoulder at Hans –”in such a position, but I’d like to know why you think you can speak for me.”
“I speak for you because Father and Mother aren’t here. And because, after them, I’m the keeper of our family’s traditions.”
“You mean you’re the only one self-important enough to want to keep them.”
Hans got up, setting his mug silently under the armchair. While Tian and Andy glared at each other, he escaped the room. Neither of his brothers said anything to him. Soon he was halfway to his favorite balcony.
Loch Erie — what the humans called Lake Erie in their newspapers — was considered to have mostly deserted shores where it bordered with New York State. But the glamour that kept kelpies like Hans and his family disguised from the nonmagical world also made their home invisible. It wasn’t a castle, but Hans had never cared for his cousins’ grand, impersonal homes. He liked the relatively small dwelling that allowed him to jump from the second-story balcony into the water below. There was just enough time between leap and splash for him to change from his mostly human aspect to his true shape.
He opened the balcony door, prepared to sprint to the railing and vault it. But he froze with his hand still on the doorknob. Someone sat on the low stone railing Hans often thought of as his. It’s him. Prince Felimid. The auburn-haired man in the leather kilt sat with his back to the loch. His face was broad and a little homely by popular standards, and the reddish, almost pebbly look of his skin in human form would be taken as unattractive by most. But his hair and eyes were beautiful, and his posture bespoke royalty.
“Hello?” Hans asked in clumsy, memorized Gaelic. He gave up and switched to English. “Are you Prince Felimid mac Lugh?” Gaelic was not his second language. He’d chosen to study Scots, best known as English’s second cousin once removed. It was his people’s tongue.
He was rewarded with English. “I am.” The prince smiled a little. Gestured for Hans to join him. “Sit for a moment. I’m sure the master won’t mind.”
You consider me a slave? It followed that Felimid didn’t know what Hans and his brothers looked like. Repressing a grin, Hans approached and bowed. “Thank you, Majesty.”
“You burst out here like you were going somewhere.” Felimid nodded toward the lake. “Were you going for a swim?”
“Yes, Majesty.” Hans wondered if the shape of his thickening cock could be seen through the tights he often wore when in human guise. The prince’s voice was as silky as gently flowing water.
Felimid stood and pushed his kilt off his waist. It dropped in a little puddle around his beautifully fashioned, human-seeming feet.
Hans blushed when he looked at those perfectly made toes so unlike the horse hooves he wore while on land. Whether he disguised himself as a human or as the water horse, he couldn’t get rid of those hooves.
Felimid chuckled. “Have you never seen a naked water demon before?”
Hans shifted his weight. His hooves, hidden in their doeskin wrappings, made no noise on the balcony’s stone floor. “It’s not that. I suddenly remembered…” But he didn’t have the courage to admit his embarrassment.
Felimid took both of Hans’s hands. “Will you listen to a piece of advice?”
Swallowing, Hans lifted his gaze. “Of course, Majesty.”
The prince shook his head. “Don’t call me that, please. We’re alone out here. There’s no need for protocol.” He smiled. His broad face was just right for big expressions. “Here’s the advice. We’re all born the same way, more or less, and we all die.”
Hans felt his lips stretch in a tentative approximation of amusement. “More or less.” It was the immortals among his community who came to mind.
“Yes, more or less.” Felimid tugged Hans toward the railing. “So since we’re all basically the same, we should have the courage to look each other in the face and say hello.”
“That’s easy for you to do,” Hans blurted. “You’re not the youngest of three…” He stilled his traitorous tongue.
Felimid raised one reddish-brown eyebrow. “Come. Swim with me.”
Aware of the heat that still remained in his face, Hans stripped and kicked off his shoes. Then he vaulted the waist-high railing and dove into the blissful, chilly water. His transformation from human guise to kelpie was over before he’d completely submerged.