“Highness, your presence is requested in the throne room,” the little servant girl said. It was pretty easy to tell from the way she kept her eyes glued to the ground, and then how quickly she darted out again, that I didn’t have a pleasant visit ahead of me.
“You’ll be fine, Princess,” a droll voice carried from the corner. I glanced over, pushing my eyes as far to the side as they would go without moving my head in an attempt to cast a dark, meaningful glare at my guard. It didn’t work; I’m not sure if the failure was due to my inability to move any of my facial muscles or the old battle-axe’s inability to be glared at.
“Thanks, Aerona,” I said through pursed lips, earning me an affronted gasp from the makeup lady who was trying to cover up my lack of sleep by intensively pinching and pushing and prodding and smothering the skin on my face. I wasn’t even certain there was all that much left of it, but I hoped what was there would be presentable.
So, apparently, did the queen, who had insisted on providing me the services of her personal retinue of makeup and wardrobe artists. It was that insistence, in fact, that had told me all I needed to know about how the day was going to go.
“I have done all I can,” the makeup artist spat and walked from the room. Seph raised my spirits a little by visibly giving me a once-over and raising two fingers in the gesture my human friends would raise two thumbs to make.
“Thanks. You coming with, Cousin?”
“No! No, I was not summoned, Alyssa. I wish I could, but—“
“I know. Well, let’s face the jungle, Aerona.” The two of us stepped out of the dressing room, me in a resplendent yellow beaded blouse that came down nearly to my ankles, and her following in her much darker bodyguard attire.
“The word is goeddgwyllt, Princess,” she murmured from behind me as we made our stately way down the third-floor hall.
“Thanks, Aerona,” I said, trying to keep sarcasm out of my voice, but failing. I didn’t need the grammar lesson when something so significant was happening just two floors down. Granted, she was right; I’d used the proper word for jungle and so it didn’t make sense in the elf idiom. The correct way to get the point across was to suggest facing the crazy trees—which would, granted, have made a native elf a lot more nervous than merely facing a jungle like they had in the southern part of the continent.
At least she had gotten my point.
“You’re welcome, Princess.”
“So how was your vacation?” She and I hadn’t had any time to chat; she’d been away for the entirety of Yule since I was safely tucked away at my father’s native village—and since, I suspected, he’d ordered her to take time off. Otherwise, she’d have continued standing just past my shoulder glaring at the shadows on my behalf for the entire time. But she’d spun into my room as the door was closing behind Seph the night before, and as far as I knew she stood in watch over me all night, just as she had every night since the ill-fated attack on me during my first few days in Kiirajanna.
“I enjoyed it,” was the simple reply.
“Did you go home?”
“Are you willing to supply me with any details?” In addition to the fact that I was anxious for anything to take my mind off of the upcoming meeting, I was really genuinely curious.
“At the moment, such details would be frivolous.”
“Thanks,” I grumbled.
Finally the long walk ended, as it eventually had to. I found myself standing in front of the doors that were so seldom closed, hoping that they could somehow just remain that way and it would all just disappear. Only, I knew it wouldn’t, and so I took a deep breath and nodded to Aerona, who pulled one of the doors wide to let me in.
I stepped into the throne room and just barely kept myself from shivering as the temperature seemed to plummet. My father’s eyes met mine briefly, and in that fleeting microsecond I watched a host of emotions flash by. The first was genuine surprise; I suppose Aerona’s door-swoosh had been a little bit too abrupt. It was followed by deep and sustaining love, a dash of pity, a whole mess of sorrow, and even a little pinch of personal humiliation.
Great. I suppressed a sigh, but only barely.
The queen, for her part, wore her own mask of consternation. Her eyes betrayed absolutely nothing as they flashed over my presence and returned quickly to the assembled guests around me. She sat easily, entirely regally, on her throne, chin high and hands relaxed on the arms of the chair. Her face looked like it was ready to freeze a fireball, but every other detail about what she could have been thinking was hidden behind a firmly-fixed mask.
I made a mental note to ask her how she developed that skill.
The royal pair were as resplendent as I’d ever seen them. Dad was regal in his darkest black velvet robe complete with purple slashed openings down each arm and a purple sash under the magnificent golden stag and raven pendant. His hair was carefully molded into the perfect black mane, swooping around and to the side like Prince Charming’s—Keion’s—did when the prince flipped it that way. But Dad was sporting the look on purpose. Similarly, Her Majesty’s hair was up in a magnificent maze of actual hair and ribbons with pearls and rubies interspersed every so often. Her luxurious dress was a formal full-length gown of purple with deep green panels inset across the bodice and down the skirt, which spilled onto the floor all about her feet. She must, I realized, have been sitting that way since before the meeting, since there was no way gravity could’ve placed the hem where it lay.
From her perch standing between the pair, Sternyface glared at everybody, though she seemed to take great joy in adding a little extra heat to her glare at me. The High Priestess Naissa and I had shared a special relationship since I’d arrived in Kiirajanna, new as I was to the elf lifestyle. She was special to me as one of only two people I’d ever punched in the face, and even more so as the only one who hadn’t even shown the slightest bit of injury from the incident. At the same time, I was obviously special to her, thanks to the weaknesses apparent in my temperament, in my maternal genetic material, in my native state of Mississippi, and in everything else I happened to be involved with. Still, my spirits were buoyed as her glare suddenly softened to a look that actually seemed calming and understanding, if that was even possible from Sternyface herself, bless her heart.
Meanwhile, I sensed nothing but anger tinged with hatred from both sides of me. I didn’t spare it a glance. I couldn’t; the Queen’s Lady had been extra-firm on that point both at my coronation ceremony and this morning. At the earlier ceremony it would have merely been a minor slight to the ruling pair, as everyone in audience to the king and queen are supposed to pay attention to them and to them alone. Today, though, it would represent a significant psychological victory for my new detractors.
It was okay. I didn’t need to turn my eyes. My spidey-senses were on maximum overdrive anyway, thanks to the stress of the moment, and while I’d never been able to sense anything but location and identity, I found myself at that moment able to discern raw emotions, too, probably thanks to the intensity of those emotions. Hefin, the barrel-chested leader of the eastern elves, stood furthest to my left. He stood calmly and felt the least angry of the bunch.
The faint whiff of woodsmoke he carried in his tunic was nearly drowned out by the pungent incense that Swadda of the Serpent Veils exuded. I can never remember the name for the incense that her tribe, the elves of the western desert, use not only for ritual blessing and cleansing but also to cover the fact that they don’t take many showers. It was described by the Queen’s Lady, before I’d experienced it personally, as a strong earthy presence bearing gentle floral and citrus overtones, but to me it smelled like I was sniffing pine needles and eating an orange while somebody nuked a microwave full of popcorn into charcoal nearby.
Swadda was the most agitated of the bunch. I didn’t need any extra senses to feel the air jiggle thanks to the quivering angst of the massive veils she wore. She was furious, and probably more than a little bit scared, and only barely holding those emotions in check.
To my right stood a darkly-brooding elf I’d enjoyed meeting last summer. Glynis led the southern tribes, a loose collective of jungle dwellers who perfectly personified the Amazonian archetype. The tribes were strongly matriarchal, I recalled, and — I’m not kidding — ran around in loincloths and leather bikini tops looking like contestants on a survivalist reality game show back home. They even applied war paint to their visages when they were looking for a battle, which was bad news considering I’d caught a glimpse of Glynis’s striped face on my way in.
That she stood rigidly wearing an enforced calm scared me the most, if you want the truth. I’d enjoyed meeting her and her tribe mostly because of the pure, simple joy they brought to most of life’s events. She’d greeted me back then with a genuine smile and a genuinely pleasant air, and then she eagerly, almost childishly, dragged me to meet nearly everybody in her camp, grinning widely the whole way. Every one of her companions invited me down to run through the tree tops with them, as others had told me that their idiom went. In a private moment afterward, while she and I were sharing some wonderful southern mead, Glynis explained to me that it wasn’t just an idiom—the southern elves could literally run through the treetops, thanks to the thousands of pathways they’d developed.
That was all before news of the library thing took hold, unfortunately. Now, they were all here to see me go down, if the queen’s kids’ rumor held true. My senses, unfortunately, were shouting at me that the rumor was pretty much spot on. I forced that thought from my mind, wrapped my face in a true, practiced elf-grin using nearly every facial muscle I owned, curtsied with the most appropriate hand gesture of respect, and greeted the royal pair.
Then my worst fears gained form and laughed in my face.