One boat remained.
The man in this boat was as startling to look upon as the rest. He was smaller than the rest of the creatures, his hair short and quite pink, sticking up in all directions as though he’d just woken from sleep, or perhaps never used a comb. He wore a riot of colored feathers woven into a shirt and breeches made of the softest brown leather Mateo had ever seen. Mateo’s own fine woolen trousers and exquisite silk-trimmed tunic seemed almost shabby in comparison to the wild wonder before him.
The man’s lips were the same pink as his hair, and his eyes were blue, fierce—as though they contained a soul stronger than his form. Mateo’s blood coursed. He was as captured by the look of this man as he’d been captivated by the sensual lure of the water. Mateo swallowed hard, hesitating. Did he dare get in? He must to follow his sisters.
Mateo stepped forward and the creature smiled. Frozen in place, Mateo checked that he still wore the cloak. Lámina’s voice echoed in his mind. The one who sees you despite the cloak’s magic is a friend.
“Ópalo!” the man rowing Luz called as distance grew between his boat and the shore. “Next time, perhaps.”
Ópalo, for that must be his name, did not look away, keeping his eyes on Mateo’s own. “One moment more.” He quirked his lips into a small, amused smile and rested his oar against the side of the boat.
Mateo took a step forward and Ópalo’s eyes lit up. He lifted his chin slightly, almost imperceptibly, with a motion that indicated Mateo should come. Mateo lifted his hand in a small wave, and Ópalo nodded his head and smiled. It was a toothy, pretty thing that made Mateo catch his breath and take a step back.
“Come!” Luz’s man called again.
“Patience, Azulejo!” Ópalo answered.
“We must not be late to the dancing.”
“You must not. I can be as late as I wish.”
“Stay then, and yearn for your bride to come. It changes nothing,” Azulejo said before bending himself to the oars, speeding Luz away at an alarming rate.
Seeing Luz’s white nightgown and dark, shining head disappear across the lake broke Mateo from his shocked state, and he quickly clambered into the boat with Ópalo. He ignored the offered hand as he stepped aboard, causing the boat to rock dangerously, nearly toppling them both out. Mateo’s stomach lurched, and there was a spray of cold water against his face as Ópalo steadied the boat with his oar, digging it into the bottom of the lake. Mateo sat down quickly.
Ópalo grinned, his blue eyes—blue as a summer sky—twinkling, and his lips spread again into that beautiful smile. “No need to be so formal.”
Mateo wasn’t sure what to make of the casual tone, but there was nothing customary about the situation. He’d traveled with his sisters into a magical realm while hidden beneath a cloak that rendered him invisible, and which had apparently determined in some unfathomable way that this man, of all men, was to be Mateo’s friend. He knew he should find more comfort in that, but he felt quite the opposite. It was hard to concentrate over the ceaseless thrumming in his veins.
Ópalo went on. “I’m so glad you came. I’ve waited for you. You have no idea how long.”
Up close, Mateo could see that Ópalo seemed made of the shifting light from the diamond forest, his skin a mottle of beautiful colors that glowed breathtakingly in the moonlight. His eyebrows and eyelashes were pink, like the hair on his head, except that none of it was hair. Instead he had feathers, longer and thicker on his head, but short and fine around his eyes. His eyelashes appeared to be the daintiest feathers that Mateo had ever seen. And Mateo, out of either the arrogance of royalty or the shock of the moment, reached out a hand to feel them, only pulling back from touching the beautiful oddness at the last moment.
Ópalo shook his head, and then reached out to grab Mateo’s hand with a strong grip. He leaned forward, offering his eyebrows and hair up to Mateo’s touch.
Mateo pulled back without making contact, a belated terror pumping through him. “Who? What?”
“Shh,” Ópalo said softly. “They can hear. Sound carries over the water. You’re hiding for a reason?”
Mateo swallowed, nodded his head, and realized he was shaking.
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