“They do not exist,” Dad argued.
“How can you say that? I was just talking to them!”
“I just said it. They do not exist. I am not certain whether you had a bad dream, or fell down and knocked yourself out, but the People of the Earth are fiction. A popular fiction, granted, but they are entirely not real.”
I felt like stamping my foot in irritation, but was too tired. After a full afternoon of being told that three of the four major clans wanted me banished, and then all night spent talking to and learning about the strange race of black-skinned elves, I’d run home to find him, Aerona, and Seph all waiting for me in my room. Seph was worried, of course, while Aerona was mostly just irritated over having been left without a charge to look over all night. Dad was—well, he was the king, and he was doing his best to make sure that I knew it.
“Okay, so maybe I knocked myself out and didn’t realize it. I’ll know more after I sleep a little. Please, may I have some privacy for just a few short hours to catch up?”
“Under normal circumstances, my daughter, such a request would be warmly met by my approval. Unfortunately, it appears that you have forgotten your promise to begin preparations for your passage to adulthood at sunrise on this day. Certainly there was no plan on your part to renege on this important point from the negotiation yesterday, was there?”
“No! No, I just—I’m tired, Dad, and want to get some sleep.”
“Perhaps you should have considered that prior to—”
“I know, I know. Okay, look, I’ll put it off. I don’t need a lecture. Where do I need to go to get the preparations started?”
“I believe the high priestess herself is awaiting your arrival in her office. As she has been, since sunrise. I am certain that you will find her in the most pleasant of moods when you arrive.”
I shot Seph a glare as penalty for her snicker, and then I spun on my heel and marched out of the room toward the castle’s passage to the cathedral. I resisted my own intense desire to hurry; Sternyface would already be as angry as she was likely to get, and sprinting through the cathedral to get to her office quickly would counter everything I’d done to prove myself worthy of the title of crown princess and its requisite respect.
Well, that, and I really was bone-tired. My legs felt like rubber. I was barely able to keep plodding along, one foot in front of the other, while my fear-addled, sleep-deprived brain kept sending irritated signals to my feet to turn around and run the other way.
Eventually, I made it anyway. I knocked, and after a long, long wait that was probably only a few dozen seconds in reality, the response filtered through the door.
I opened the door and marched in, wondering what I was in for.
“Please close the door behind you,” made my heart skip a beat. She’d never had me close the door behind a meeting with just her and me before. We’d had a few closed-door events with my father present, but not with just me.
“You’re late. Very late,” she chided me once I’d returned to my spot in front of her desk.
“I went out for a jog last night to clear my head and lost track of time,” I explained, as unapologetically as I could manage.
“Lost track of time?” she asked, giving me a doubtful look. Obviously, she hadn’t heard the real story. “How do you lose track of sunrise when you are outside?”
“I got into a conversation,” I answered, trying to make it sound like the most natural thing in the world.
“What sort of conversation?” she probed.
“I met some dark-skinned elves, who told me the history of their portion of the race. Dad told me this morning that they don’t exist, though, so I probably imagined the whole thing while I was busy not noticing that the sun was rising.” I gave her my sweetest smile to emphasize the level of sarcasm I was attaching to the statement.
“Dark-skinned elves,” she repeated, her mouth dragging the words out acerbically. “Yes, there is certainly a—constraint—upon your father and what the king can and cannot say within the castle’s walls.”
“So he knows about them?”
“I am not at liberty to say what the king knows about and what he does not. I would, however, recommend that you try to use some of the sense that your birth lineage gave you and avoid introducing topics like that where they should not be discussed.”
“So you know about the dark elves.” I didn’t let it slip into a question at the end.
She shrugged, making the gesture into a luxurious show of ostentation, with a sideways sneer on her face. “What I do or do not know is not a matter to be questioned by a child, even one as privileged as the crown princess believes herself to be. You came here to prepare for the hunhymgais. Now, let us begin.”
By lunchtime I was convinced that the preparation for hunhymgais was likely to kill me from stopping my breath due to boredom. Sternyface, who apparently hadn’t gotten over my tardiness or my putting her on the spot, seemed to delight in droning on about what makes an adult, an adult. She refused to let me sit through the process, too, so I had to stand, shifting my weight occasionally as one leg or the other fell as deeply asleep as I wished that my entire body could. Lunch was brought to me, to be eaten in a special side room, where the furniture consisted precisely of one small wooden table and one wooden stool. Apparently Sternyface had “business to attend to,” in her sparse terminology. The fruit and slices of meat were welcome, though, since I’d skipped breakfast completely. At least I got to sit down to eat.
After lunch the high priestess announced that lecturing me was too boring for Her Holiness, and suddenly I was rushed off to a smaller office where an even more boring set of lectures were delivered by a male priest with a high-pitched voice and a slight lisp. I was actually glad that he wouldn’t let me sit, because I’m pretty sure I would’ve fallen right to sleep given the chance.
“That sounds awful,” Seph comforted me as I told her the story that evening at the table in the common dining room. I didn’t have to be seek any privacy, since nobody other than my cousin was willing to sit anywhere near me.
I nodded and chewed another bite. Finally I asked, “How did your preparation for hunhymgais go?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, when you were getting ready to go for your ceremony. How many lectures did you have to sit through?”
Seph looked incredulous. “None.”
“None at all? What did you do to prepare?”
“I stripped my clothes off.”
“And then what?”
“I stepped in to the portal.”
“That’s all?” I couldn’t believe the difference between her and my experiences so far.
“Alyssa, I’m just a regular person. Growing up, I observed everything that the high priestess and priest have been lecturing you on. So when the time came, I just did it.”
“Oh. Wonder how my father’s hunhymgais went.”
“About the same as your cousin’s,” my father’s voice answered from behind, surprising me enough to earn him a jump and a gasp. I’ve bragged about my spidey-senses, but my father is the one exception I’ve found. Luckily I had no fear he’d ever sneak up behind me with a dagger, because he’s the one guy who could actually do it.
“Your Majesty,” Seph said with a flourish, and then she kept eating at his gestured command to do so. She looked a lot like she wanted to escape, though.
“Dad, I get the desire to see me safely through the hunhymgais, but why all the lectures?”
“That is not mine to explain, my daughter.”
“I’m just—tired,” I said, and unbidden came a yawn to accompany my pronouncement.
“I can imagine. You had a long and exciting night. Perhaps we could discuss it further in privacy?”
“I’d like that. Only, not for too long,” I said, yawning again. It was catching; Seph mirrored the action.
“Not for too long,” Dad agreed, and then headed into the throne room. I said good night to Seph and then followed him in, taking my food tray and its few remaining bites with me.
“So. Dark elves,” Dad said in English after silently pouring each of us a whiskey.
“I’m a little nervous about drinking that, as exhausted as I am.”
“Drink it. Slowly. It’ll help you sleep.”
“Okay. So there really are dark elves,” I said, unable to make my voice do anything, accusatory or otherwise. I was impressed with myself over merely being able to form a coherent sentence. At least, I thought it was coherent. It was getting harder to speak in English, believe it or not, after so many months of speaking mostly in the beautiful, complex elf language.
“Yes. As your father, I am not very proud of it, but as your king, I cannot admit to their presence where such admission could be overheard.”
“They are—aflan,” he said. I searched for the meaning of the elf word he used, but couldn’t find anything. To my confused look, he added, “not—not clean, I believe is the best translation.”
“I’m sure they could be clean if you let them into the castle to take a bath.”
Dad grimaced. “It is not a bath-scrubbing sort of clean that we are talking about, Alyssa. They are wild—untamed—untamable.”
What he meant slowly came to me. “Wait—you mean unclean, as in a caste sort of thing, don’t you? Like what Ghandi saved the Indian people from, or something.” I was so tired it was just spilling out, and besides, Dad wouldn’t know the history either. “You’re saying that because they’re dark-skinned, they don’t have any worth and so they can’t be in your presence. That’s disgusting. That’s racist.”
“No, no, it is not because of their skin color.”
“That’s what all racists say.”
“No! That is not it at all. Please listen to me.”
“Okay, racist.” I was completely, totally disgusted with my father at that moment.
My father inhaled, his nostrils flaring in agitation, giving me the cue I needed to stop prodding him. With a measured voice, he said, “The dark elves refuse to follow our tradition. They use magic freely, wantonly, repetitively.”
“So do I. Are you going to call me unclean, too?”
He leaned forward, anger flashing in his eyes brightly enough that I shrank back a little. “Did you miss the brunt of the conversation a few days ago? The one where three major clan chieftains were suggesting just that? You are far from stupid, my daughter, so I can only assume it is your exhaustion making you speak so illogically.”
“Oh.” He was right, I guess. Still, it went against every fiber of my being to ostracize an entire segment of society—one that just happened to be identified by the color of their skin—over a social more that I already considered dumb.
I said exactly that, only in a little bit lighter tone than I’d been using.
He relaxed slightly.
“It has nothing to do with their skin color, Alyssa. Their presence, their beliefs, run foul to a true elf’s sensitivities and sensibilities. Remember the boy you met in the village?”
“Gwyn?” Of course I remembered the boy. It’s not every day you meet the body double for Legolas, and he had just the sort of impish grin that I liked staring at.
“Yes, that boy. He is trouble, precisely because he has ingratiated himself and apparently has visited numerous times and at length with the dark-skinned ones. It has gotten him shunned by his whole village, and for good reason. Yes, I know you were attracted to him, but to be honest I would rather you pursue even Keion than that rascal. You have a very real, very pressing challenge to your future throne mounting, my daughter, and the last thing you need to do is make your claim worse by raising the specter of aflan against you. Please tell me that you will not again make contact with—those.”
“Dad, you’re still a racist. You know that?”
He looked at me for a long while, just shaking his head in a tiny side-to-side arc. Finally he replied quietly, “I am obviously not solid on what the term racist means, my daughter, but I can tell that it is an important concept to you. For my part I will admit to whatever you accuse me of, in the name of effectively governing my land. You may see things differently, and that is fine. You may feel free to violate that tradition once you become queen, just as you are apparently slated to violate every other tradition that my—our—people hold dear. But for my sake, and for that of your mother, as well as the queen and the high priestess, please pretend as though last night did not happen until you are safely and securely crowned. Even then, I must warn you, accepting the aflan into your presence and society will likely cost you a large part of your following, if not the throne itself. Tread with wisdom there, please, my daughter.”
“I will, Dad,” I said, nodding. “But for now, I just need to get to bed.”
“Sleep peacefully, then, and please, no more night runs.”