But he could control his needs. He must. Let his father, Llyr, wallow in the ocean's seductive embrace. Conn had held himself above such things for a very long time.
Yet sometimes in the evening, he left his tower to walk with his hound among the rocks and tide pools at the water's edge.
The sun slipped in the bronze sky, staining the pewter water to gold and veining the clouds with fire. Conn lifted his face to the raw western wind. He could have sought or summoned a partner. There were females on Sanctuary eager to satisfy the moods and needs of its prince.
But that was indulgence, too, another slide into sensation, another plunge into loss of control. Unlike his father the king, Conn could not afford to expend himself and his energy on passing pleasure.
The dog ranged up and down, head low. The water shrugged. A line of foam rustled to shore, whispering for Conn's attention. In the time before Conn's father's time, when the flood of magic ran full and hot, the sea kings had grasped and wielded power like a sword. But the gifts of the merfolk had declined with their numbers. Conn's own magic was a subtler thing, pale and shapeless as water, that trickled through his clenched hands.
Which is why the vision burning in the tide pool at his feet almost tripped him up.
Light struck the surface of the water and blazed. The pool caught the colors of the sky, orange and gold. Power shimmered in the air. The hound whined.
Conn narrowed his gaze. The glare resolved itself into a female shape. A girl, with long bones and strong shoulders and hair as thick and pale as straw around a lean and quiet face.
Conn frowned. Not selkie. He would have known one of his own. There were only a few thousand of his people left, enough to recognize, barely enough to rule.
Not even particularly beautiful.
Human, he thought. And therefore unimportant.
But then why had his gift shown her to him?
Her image shimmered, trapped in the safe, shallow little pool like a fish caught by the retreating tide, oblivious to the rich dark depths of the ocean teeming yards away.
She meant nothing, Conn told himself.
She was nothing.
But her vision refused to go away.
And the girl grubbing in the dirt, surrounded by pumpkins and broken stalks of corn, was hardly a reward for his years of discipline and sacrifice.
Even kneeling, she was as tall as many men, long boned and rangy. Although maybe that was an illusion created by her clothes, jeans and a lumpy gray jacket. Conn thought there might be curves under the jacket. Big breasts, little breasts... He hardly cared. She was the one. Her hair fell thick and pale around her downturned face. Her long, pale fingers patted and pressed the earth. She had a streak of dirt beside her thumb.
Not a beauty, he thought again.
He knew her name now. Lucy Hunter. He had known her mother, the sea witch, Atargatis. This human girl had clearly not inherited her mother's allure or her gifts. Living proof--if Conn had required any--that the children of the sea should not breed with humankind.
But a starving dog could not sneer at a bone.
His hands curled into fists at his sides. In recent weeks, her vision had haunted him from half a world away, reflected in the water, impressed upon his brain, burning like a candle against his retinas at night.
He might not want her, but his magic insisted he needed her. His gift was as fickle as a beautiful woman. And like a woman, his power would abandon him entirely if he ignored its favors. He could not risk that.
He watched the girl drag her hand along the swollen side of a pumpkin. Brushing off dirt? Testing it for ripeness? He had only the vaguest idea what she might be doing here among the tiny plots of staked vines and fading flowers. The children of the sea did not work the earth for their sustenance.
Frustration welled in him.
What has she to do with me? he demanded silently. What am I to do with her?
The magic did not reply.
Which led him, again, to the obvious answer. But he had ruled too long to trust the obvious.
He did not expect resistance. He could make her willing, make her want him. It was, he thought bitterly, the remaining power of his kind, when other gifts had been abandoned or forgotten.
No, she would not resist. She had family, however, who might interfere. Brothers. Conn had no doubt the human, Caleb, would do what he could to shield his sister from either sex or magic.
Dylan, on the other hand, was selkie, like their mother. He had lived among the children of the sea since he was thirteen years old. Conn had always counted on Dylan's loyalty. He did not think Dylan would have much interest in or control over his sister's life. But Dylan was involved with a human woman now. Who knew where his loyalties lay?
Conn frowned. He could not afford a misstep. The survival of his kind depended on him.
And if, as his visions insisted, their fate involved this human girl as well...
He regarded her head, bent like one of her heavy gold sunflowers over the dirt of the garden, and felt a twinge of pity. Of regret.
That was unfortunate for both of them.
Lucy patted the pumpkin affectionately like a dog. Her second graders' garden plots would be ready for harvest soon. Plants and students were rewarding like that. Put in a little time, a little effort, and you could actually see results.
Too bad the rest of her life didn't work that way.
Not that she was complaining, she told herself firmly. She had a job she enjoyed and people who needed her. If at times she felt so frustrated and restless she could scream, well, that was her own fault for moving back home after college. Back to the cold, cramped house she grew up in, to the empty rooms haunted by her father's shell and her mother's ghost. Back to the island, where everyone assumed they knew everything about her.
Back to the sea she dreaded and could not live without.
She wiped her hands on her jeans. She had tried to leave once, when she was fourteen and finally figured out her adored brother Cal wasn't ever coming back to rescue her. She'd run away as fast and as far as she could go.
Which, it turned out, wasn't very far at all.
Lucy looked over the dried stalks and hillocks of the garden, remembering. She had hitchhiked to Richmond, twenty miles from the coast, before collapsing on the stinking tile floor of a gas station restroom. Her stomach lurched at the memory. Caleb had found her, shivering and puking her guts into the toilet, and brought her back to the echoing house and the sound of the sea whispering under her window.
She had recovered before the ferry left the dock.
Flu, concluded the island doctor.
Stress, said the physician's assistant at Dartmouth when Lucy was taken ill on her tour of the college.
Panic attack, insisted her ex-boyfriend, when their planned weekend getaway left her wheezing and heaving by the side of the road.
Whatever the reasons, Lucy had learned her limits. She got her teaching certificate at Machias, within walking distance of the bay. And she never again traveled more than twenty miles from the sea.
She climbed to her feet. Anyway, she was...maybe not happy, but content with her life on World's End. Both her brothers lived on the island now, and she had a new sister-in-law. Soon, when Dylan married Regina, she'd have two. Then there would be nieces and nephews coming along.
And if her brothers' happiness sometimes made her chafe and fidget...
Lucy took a deep breath, still staring at the garden, and forced herself to think about plants until the feeling went away.
Garlic, she told herself. Next week her class could plant garlic. The bulbs could winter in the soil, and next season her seven-year-old students could sell their crop to Regina's restaurant. Her future sister-in-law was always complaining she wanted fresh herbs.
Steadied by the thought, Lucy turned from the untidy rows.
Someone was watching from the edge of the field. Her heart thumped. A man, improbably dressed in a dark, tight-fitting suit. A stranger, here on World's End, where she knew everybody outside of tourist season. And the last of those had left on Labor Day.
She rubbed sweaty palms on the thighs of her jeans. He must have come on the ferry, she reasoned. Or by boat. She was uncomfortably aware how quiet the school was now that all the children had gone home.
When he saw her notice him, he stepped from the shadow of the trees. She had to press her knees together so she wouldn't run away.
Yeah, because freezing like a frightened rabbit was a much better option.
He was big, taller than Dylan, broader than Caleb, and a little younger. Or older. She squinted. It was hard to tell. Despite his impressive stillness and well-cut black hair, there was a wildness to him that charged the air like a storm. Strong, wide forehead, long, bold nose, firm, unsmiling mouth, oh, my. His eyes were the color of rain.
Something stirred in Lucy, something that had been closed off and quiet for years. Something that should stay quiet. Her throat tightened. The blood drummed in her ears like the sea.
Maybe she should have run after all.