“Ych a fi!”
I spun my head toward my father, stunned. From what I could see of Seph’s expression in my peripheral view, I could tell she was as shocked as I was. My dad, the high king of all Kiirajanna, the elf whose speech patterns were always exorbitantly formal whether in English or his native tongue, had just cursed. And it wasn’t a nice curse, either; it was the most disgusting of the disgust phrases that the beautiful elf language has available to it. It involved, literally, something about an ox and a person, I think, but I’d been taught never to say the phrase unless I wanted my mouth washed out with soap.
Granted, that lesson was with the five year olds, but it stuck pretty solidly with me. I could tell from Seph’s mirrored reaction that my memory was accurate.
I didn’t understand, though. Coming back to the castle for the last couple of ceremonies related to Yule, we’d just rounded the final corner to make the approach straight in to the front doors. It was a gorgeous final approach, as always. Huge expanses of grass mingled amongst the trees, not a single discoloration in sight despite it being the dead of winter. The only thing out of the ordinary was a ring of gaily decorated tents arrayed about the main courtyard in front of the castle, but that, in turn, looked spectacular to me. The vibrant colors of all the pendants were spectacular, and the variety and decoration of clothing worn by all the elves gathered about them was also spectacular.
It was, in a word, spectacular.
What, then, did my father find so disgusting?
“Alyssa, Sephaline, get inside and up to your rooms as quickly as possible,” he growled in English just as the horseless carriage rumbled to a stop. He punctuated the order with an adamant little gesture down low, below the edge of the carriage so that it couldn’t be seen by onlookers. Seph obediently grabbed my arm and rushed us inside and straight up the stairs.
“Wait,” I ordered, pulling her to a halt at the first landing. “It took me a second, but I know those colors. Some of them, anyway. They were here last summer at my coronation. But why would my father be so put out by seeing Swadda’s arrival?” Seph shook her head mutely and raised her shoulders in a shrug of ignorance. But I vividly remembered meeting the penna of the western tribe back then, along with the leaders of the other tribes as well. It had seemed like a great big elf party, with the huge drums of the eastern clan mixing in with the undulating song of the southern clan and the weird multi-voice guttural harmony from the western elves, and a whole lot of dancing and drinking to go with it. They’d all seemed pleased to meet me at the time, too.
What could be going on now?
“I am not entirely certain, but it could have something to do with their stated desire to put your head up on a pike to parade back to their people,” a slitheringly amused voice cut in from the side. Seph, whose ranger gift of sensing approaching elves didn’t work in stone structures, jumped in surprise, but it gave me a little pride to have sensed the royal trio approaching.
“Greetings, Meriel. Glad to see you three made it back safely from your amser calan festivities. We had a marvelous time; thank you so for the kindness of asking. Tell me, did you have a chance to stock up on the wine of nastiness while you were away?” I tossed the queen’s youngest daughter a smirk.
Of the three, Meriel showed the most reaction as her eyes squinted ever so slightly and her lips pressed together. I was proud of myself for advancing in the ability to read elf expressions as much as I had in less than a year; when I’d arrived her expression would have seemed stolid. Now I could read the anger right off her eyelid lines, see the speechlessness on her lips, and watch the anger intensify as a result of her inability to make a comeback.
After all, I reckoned, very few had ever sniped back at the Light of Queen Talaith’s Eyes, or whatever the youngest brat was calling herself.
Seren, the eldest, allowed herself another moment of calm serenity before rolling her eyes at the antics. “It is so nice to see the peace of Christmastime lasted so long before being smashed asunder.” She split her regal glare between me and her sister. Her point was valid, I had to admit. Ostensibly to give the queen’s kids a cultural rounding-off with a taste of a Southern Christmas, Dad had led us back through the portal to Memphis a couple of days before Christmas Eve, and we’d spent a wonderful Christmas with Momma. Of course, I and the brats had all decided that the trip was mostly of benefit to the king himself, and of course we’d had significantly different reactions to that. Still, the castle in Wales had been alerted of our impending plan, and so the queen’s kids had been shown pretty much every possible imaginable joy, right up to a first class flight up to see Times Square in New York City. And, hey, Momma and I got to go along. And they’d still complained about being asked to do it. Meriel had, anyway, in a supercilious manner that obviously included her siblings as complainants.
The upshot was that it had actually been harmonizing in a strange, superficially joyful sort of way. Meriel, the same elf who’d just gleefully described my head on a pike, had actually grinned widely at and along with me as we watched a huge tree flash its lights at us in Rockefeller Center. Later, as we sat around the kitchen table and enjoyed Momma’s Christmas morning breakfast, I finally saw Seren let slip her royal guard on her expression. She smiled, she laughed, and she even joked. The gift giving had been delightful, too.
It had all been beautiful, if obviously short-lived. But that’s another story.
“Sarcasm, sister? You are so far above the low-brow humor of the half-human,” Meriel purred. That made it my turn to glare.
Keion remained silent. The middle child and only son of Talaith, Keion was a smoldering mass of testosterone-based sexiness who had even gotten my really selective engines revved up once. Or, maybe twice. Okay, truth be told, he’s the only member of the male half of the species who ever brought out such a visceral hunger in me. Problem was, he knew it, and he gloried in the knowledge, and I knew it, and I hated him for the glory. It was all so high-school-ish, and yet I found it impossible to keep my heart from leaping into my throat when I saw him.
For his part, he managed to maintain the same perfectly neutral expression that his elder sister held. I didn’t doubt for a second that he was on my side; he’d saved my head, and my neck, and literally the rest of the body it was attached to, too many times already for me to question his motives. He’d even sworn personal allegiance to me in a strange spur-of-the-moment ceremony up in the north under the incredible northern lights. But those times were all when his sisters weren’t present, and who could know what he’d decide if he had to choose between us?
“So what about you, Prince Keion?” I teased. “Do your toes curl in excitement at the idea of seeing my head on a pike, too?”
That earned a flush and a glare, both at the same time, before he answered with a fair amount of heat in his voice, “I believe, Princess, that my sister was engaging in hyperbole regarding threat to your physical form. However, the clans gathered have brought quite a solid argument, in light of all the cursed magic we have been witness to, that Seren, the well-trained, well-bred daughter of Talaith herself, would make a demonstrably better choice to succeed her mother than a gangly Mississippi girl with no royal upbringing whatsoever.”
“I—I see,” I murmured, feeling my control slip away in the crushing agony that his words brought with them. He was absolutely correct, and I’d wished for someone else to take the crown in my place many more times than anybody else knew. None of that mattered, though, when it was him standing there offering the damning opinion. I bravely wrestled what control I could back to my face and my spine and my knees, somehow preventing the latter from buckling. “Well. Thank you for your—opinion, Prince. I shall take that under advisement, and—now I must seek rest after a long journey back. Sephaline, would you please retire with me?”
The two of us left the trio preening in the stair landing by themselves. I marched slowly, deliberately, to my room, opened the door, and firmly but quietly shut it after Seph and Booboo, who had crept up behind us in an impossibly silent way. Then I slumped onto the bed, suddenly feeling as exhausted as I’d claimed to be.
I ignored the excited rattling and the rustling in the corner as long as I could, which wasn’t very long. “Hi, L.T.,” I called out in the sing-song I used to communicate with my new, strange friend. “We weren’t gone all that long. I trust you were well tended?”
Another rattle, one I somehow recognized as an affirmative.
Little Treebeard, or L.T., is a very small tree. He’s—or she’s—my best friend, I guess, though I still hadn’t figured out how to tell the tree’s gender. Regardless, using it seemed wrong. The priests gave me the small potted elm as part of my lessons to connect to nature, and I’d connected after a long, tough run of effort. While that was a tremendous academic achievement, it was also the moment the tree latched on to me, and hard. When I went to the north, I’d only been gone for a couple of days before Dad was forced to send a squad carrying L.T. after me.
The only communication the tree and I had was the rattling of L.T.’s branches and the sing-song of my voice. In spite of that, the tree had managed to warn me of an impending attack a couple of times. And I—weird as it sounds, I kind of enjoyed singing to the little creature, who would occasionally swoosh his branches in appreciation. Seph, who was more of an animal person, just watched wide-eyed in wonder at the connection we had.
“Some day, Alyssa, you’re going to have to deal with the hold that boy has over your spirit,” my cousin interrupted gently from the corner.
“Was it that obvious?” I asked, dreading the answer. I looked up from where I’d buried my face in my hands and gently wiped the tears that I hadn’t realized were falling.
“It’s always been that obvious, but just now you seriously overplayed it. ‘I shall take that under advisement, Prince,’” she mimicked, though her smile was genuine enough to remove the sting. “Look, it’s obvious that you care for him, and that he cares for you, too, but seriously, Alyssa. He’s most likely to become king after your father returns to Mississippi, and you’re still quite in the running to become queen, no matter how much you wish differently—yes, that’s obvious, too—and you know that the king and queen cannot be involved in that way. You also know that he’s already promised. You need to admit it, and quit torturing yourself over it, and—what’s so funny?”
She asked the question in such a piqued way that it made everything seem even funnier. Suddenly I was guffawing on the bed, rolling around clutching my side. She started giggling, too.
Finally the fit died down. “So, what was so funny?” she probed again.
“Mississippi. You said it right. That’s the first time since I’ve been here.”
“I’ve been practicing.”
“Why do you ask, why?” she asked, confusion spread across her face.
“Nobody on Kiirajanna cares how you pronounce it. It’s just a state back home.”
“You do. It’s where you were born.”
“Well….” She had a point. I’d corrected her every time she’d mispronounced it because I guess it really was important to me. “I appreciate it, Cousin,” I said, earning me another radiant smile. Then I took the mood down a notch with a question, “Do you think that crowd out there is really after my head?”
“No, of course not. Well, maybe. I’m not sure, Alyssa. Your father seemed awfully perturbed, and he’s still out there now.”
“True. I’ve never seen him like that.” Granted, I’d only seen him for a few months of the time I’d been on Kiirajanna, but I couldn’t imagine it otherwise. Seph nodded confirmation. “So what are we going to do if they are?”
She shrugged. “We’ll do what we’ve been doing, Alyssa. We’ll figure out a way around it.”
“It may not be that simple, though.”
She shrugged again and held me in a stern gaze. “It may not be that complicated, actually. You don’t know. You’ve got to stop worrying about what you don’t have any control over. You’re smart, and you’re already one of the most powerful elves in the realm. You have powerful people on your side: your pa, the queen, the high priestess, and me!”
“Why would the queen be on my side? It’s in her daughter’s best interest to be on their side.”
“Maybe. I doubt it, since she would not have graced you with the invitations to tea or anything else if she weren’t on your side. But you’re still worrying about something you can’t control. Stop it!” She punctuated her last sentence with a clap on each word.
“Okay. I’m tired, anyway. Maybe a night of sleep will help clear this all up.”
“Maybe. Probably! It must.” She nodded decisively and walked out, the shaggy wolverine padding quietly behind.