For hours my muscles fought the neurotoxin, straining and pushing against the unseen bindings keeping my body from moving. Progress came, albeit slowly, starting with the face. First my mouth, then my eyes, followed by the ability to swivel my neck slightly.
The room was dark, but once my eyes adjusted, I began to make out shapes. I was lying in a spacious bedroom, which would have been rectangular in shape had it not been for the back wall, which curved around in a semi-circle. The bed -which was twice the width of the one Malcolm and I shared back home- was lined up against the back wall and facing a heavy oak door that remained closed. Next to it was a glass bed-stand, with the half-filled bottle of red wine still resting on its surface. To my left stood a massive wardrobe so wide that its wooden doors spanned the entire wall, followed by a small bookcase in the far corner.
Over and over again I willed life back into my extremities, sweat beading on the back of my neck as I grunted in physical exertion. A couple of hours later, and I had the fingers on both of my hands functioning normally again. Exhausted, yet content with my progress, I drifted off back to sleep.
I could sense her presence before I had even opened my eyes.
It was the scent of her perfume that gave it away; it hung in the air of the room, sweet and fragrant, like the scent of the wildflowers that lined the main road to the capital city.
When my eyes finally did open, the torches along the walls of the bedroom had been lit. The woman was leaning against the giant wardrobe, watching me.
I squinted to get a better look at her. By any standards, she was drop-dead gorgeous. Her face still held the youth of her early twenties, and she looked back at me with a pair of large green eyes that could have made any man melt in her gaze. When she noticed I was awake, she flicked her hair – a thick, cascading twist of dark blonde- so that it fell over her left shoulder.
When she spoke, there was no warmth in her voice. “Rise and shine,” she said softly.
The woman sauntered over towards the bed, never breaking eye contact with me. She was small and lithe with soft features, dressed in flowing silks, yet as she approached me I could see a noticeable build of muscles knotting her shoulders, contrasting sharply with her otherwise delicate figure. The was an air of danger to the woman, much as she tried to conceal it.
“So this is the Church’s pick for the next queen,” she said, seating herself on the corner of my bed. She began to pick at the white silk sheets with a manicured fingernail. “Could hardly believe it myself when I first heard it, the ‘Angel from the Gods’, here at last. Seemed like another one of the King’s sick jokes. Yet here you are, lying on my sister’s bed.” I could see the frigid hostility in her eyes as she regarded me. “This is the False King’s ultimate humiliation to my family: to push the Urias line out of the throne in favor of his commoner wench.”
My breath came faster, and I felt a primal urge to put as much distance between myself and the woman as I could. I tried willing my legs to move, to spring out of the bed and dash across to the doorway, but my body would not comply.
“Look, I’m not here to cause any trouble,” I said. “You can be Queen. I’m only here to convince the King to leave with me. Once we leave, you can take whatever you want.”
“Whatever I want, you say?” she asked, tossing her hair back to the other shoulder. “Well, I want my older sister back. I want the head of the man that took her life.” She laughed, and looked down into her hands. “That, and anyone he cares about.”
“Please,” I said. “This is some kind of misunderstanding. Just give me five minutes to talk to him, he’ll listen to me, I swear!”
My pleas fell on deaf ears, as the woman was suddenly showing great interest in the pillow propped under my head. Without warning, she yanked it from under me, and my head thudded painfully against the headboard. “I wonder how the King would feel if I snuffed the life out of his little commoner wench.” Her fingers curled around the pillow and she crumpled it into a ball. “I heard she’s undergoing the Baptism. It would be a real shame if the neurotoxins spread to her lungs and she stopped breathing.” The pillow began to move closer to my face, and she shot me a smile laced with venom. “What do you think, sweetheart? What would our dear King’s prophecies say about that?”
I opened my lungs to scream for help, but just then, the door swung open and two men piled into the room. The woman dropped the pillow to the floor, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Hope I’m not interrupting anything, ladies.” The speaker wore a ridiculous lemon-colored tunic so bright that staring at it for too long hurt my eyes. He was lean with dark skin and an infectious smile, and carried himself with an air of confident energy that drew the focus of the room towards him like a gravitational pull. He’s a good looking man, I thought, the only problem is that he knows it, and its gone straight to his head. Behind him, The second man stood silently. He was taller, wearing less flamboyant clothes, and held a long spear in his right hand.
The woman’s eyes narrowed as she turned to face the man in the yellow tunic. “I don’t remember summoning the King’s royal fool.”
The man bowed, surveying the scene before him as if it brought him great amusement. “Well, I see you’re in a lovely mood once again, my sweet princess. Jillian the Angel, meet Alynsa.”
Alynsa turned to leave, whipping her dark blond hair so that it slapped me in the face. “It was nice to meet you Jillian. We’ll be seeing each other.” She stormed through the frame of the oak door and was gone.
“Don’t mind her,” the first man said. “Alynsa carries a lot of hot air, but she’s not dumb enough to provoke the King. Right now, she’s all up in arms because she’s convinced the King murdered his own wife, her sister. But even if that hadn’t happened, she’d still find something else to be angry about towards him.”
“She just threatened to kill me,” I said, still shaking. “You’ll have to forgive me for having my doubts.”
“Yep, sounds like Princess Alynsa. These days you’re either with the Church, or you stand with the Urias family. So naturally, you’re her enemy.”
“I’m affiliated with the church?” I asked.
Both men laughed. The tall man in back said, “Is she serious?”
“Of course you are,” the man in the yellow tunic said to me. “You’re the church’s officially sponsored suitress. The servants downstairs are all taking bets on who the King is going to choose, and so far, you’re the heavy favorite. As far as I’m concerned, the crown is yours.” He looked down at me again. “Can’t say I understand it though. You’ve got a castle filled with the most beautiful women in the entire Kingdom, and the King is all set to settle on a real salt-of-the-earth gal like you. Maybe its some type of public image thing. Hell if I know.”
The taller man scoffed. “Don’t be rude, Hendrik. They all look like her before they undergo the molding treatment. By the time the magi are done with her, she’ll be almost as attractive as the Baroness Nadia.”
“Wait, I’m not undergoing any ‘molding’ treatment,” I said.
The first man, apparently named Hendrik, shrugged. “That’s what they all say at first.” He looked down, now noticing that I was still lying in the same position. “What’s your deal? You bed-ridden or something? Contracted one of those crippling diseases that Outsiders always seem to be bringing with them?”
“Hey!” I said. “I don’t have any diseases. I’m undergoing the Baptism.”
Hendrik broke into a fit of laughter. “So you’re paralyzed for the foreseeable future.” He picked up one of my arms and let it flop lifelessly back on the bed. “Your timing is impeccable too. I can see it now. Rows of stunning women lining the halls of the throne room, hoping to be chosen as the next queen. Enter Jillian, the Belle of the Ball, still immobile up to her neck, with as much vigor and charm as a dead fish. But still, it’s love at first sight, the King sees her rigid figure and his heart melts. ‘I want her,’ the King yells, the second they lock eyes. ‘Bring me this angel, my true queen, The Vegetable from the Outside!’”
I glared at him. “You know I have other women threatening to suffocate me with a pillow over this, right? Is this some kind of joke to you?”
“Sort of,” Hendrik admitted. “My entire role in all of this is a bit of a farce.”
“And what is it you do again?”
I saw his eyes begin to twinkle. “Ah, I haven’t given you my proper introduction yet.” He bowed low, almost mockingly. “Chancellor Ugeth Hendrik, the most famous member of the Royal Council, at your service. Behind me is my bodyguard Victor. Although,” -he gave me a wink- “most folks know us better by our monikers back when we worked exclusively as traveling bards: Silvertongue and Quickhand.”
He looked at me expectantly, searching for a reaction. I shook my head and said, “Sorry, never heard of you two. Don’t take it personally though, I’m new around here.”
The smile faded from his face, but the tall man, Victor, laughed. “I told you the Outsider’s could give a damn about the shit we call music over here, Hendrik.”
“So you’re a famous bard?” I asked, seeing how dejected he looked since I had failed to recognize him.
“He’s not a bard,” Victor stated. “He’s a fraud.”
“There’s nothing fraudulent about skilled imitation,” Hendrik cut in. “I happen to be the most skilled imitation artist in the entire Kingdom of Lentempia, and it has brought me droves of gold and women in return.”
“Hendrik’s a magi,” Victor said bluntly. “A very skilled one. He can change his voice to emulate anybody he’s ever heard before. Nobody liked our original sonnets, so he started using his magic to copy the voices of the most famous musicians in the land and sing their music. His popularity is based solely on his versatility in ripping off talented people.”
“Don’t act so grateful, Vic,” Hendrik said, although his tone remained playful. “You didn’t exactly turn down the chance to ride on this fraud’s coattails during my meteoric rise to fame.” He punched Victor in the shoulder. “Give me credit for actually using my talents in a lucrative way. I mean, look at the church: they have their own voice-changer too, but the only time they ever used his power was to make Father Caollin’s voice deeper. He was self conscious that it was too nasally, the vain prick. But me? My ambitions land much higher than padding some corrupt priest’s ego.”
“Okay, so you two are musicians,” I said, now curious. “But then…how did you end up on the royal council?”
Hendrik looked down at the floor, blushing. “Well, it’s a funny story-”
“One of my favorite stories,” Victor cut in.
“Yes, Vic loves this one. I guess you should hear it from me before somebody else tells it wrong.” He swallowed a grin, as if he were proud of himself. “So back a few years ago the Royal Palace had arranged a great festival in honor of the Queen’s birthday. Naturally, this is a celebration for a Urias, so only the biggest and brightest names would do. Myself and Victor were personally contracted to play the music during the feast.”
“Now during the supper, there was a request to play the traditional song, ‘The Queen’s Grace’. This of course is a tremendously boring and slow song, so whenever I play it, I look for ways to liven it up. You could say that I have…uhh…two different lyrical versions of this song. One set that I play for nobles, and one that I play for commoners. So, on the night of the festival, I had a few too many drinks, and while I was playing it in front of the King and the Queen, I sang the wrong version-”
Victor jumped in, “He got so drunk that he switched the verse that goes, I want to bask in the Queen’s wondrous Grace, with his own verse which went, I want the Queen to sit on my face.”
“I was drunk!” Hendrik said, turning red in the face. “The commoners love crass versions of popular songs. They can get a whole pub going when the spirits are flowing.”
“So you told the queen that you wanted her to sit on your face?” I asked. “How exactly did that land you a spot in the King’s inner circle?”
“Well, as soon as I sang that verse, the entire hall went dead silent, like they had all just witnessed a murder. The Queen herself just sat there, frozen in her chair. It was Alynsa that lost her wits first. She started screaming for me to be arrested immediately in that shrill voice that cuts right to your core, and before I even knew what was happening they had me shackled in irons and locked in the dungeons.” He paused. “But you must understand, the King has always hated the Urias sisters, and they hate him back. Both sides play their little games in the court where they try to belittle and de-legitimize the other. He saw the anger that I had caused Alynsa, thought it would be funny if he gave me an official pardon and a high honorary title, just to piss her off. It was a great insult you see, for the Queen and Alynsa to have to face me everyday in high court, knowing the things I had said about her sister. So…next thing I knew, I was out of the dungeons and onto the Royal Council.”
I stared at Hendrik in disbelief. “The King is seriously that petty? Even to his own wife?”
“To Queen Isabelle Urias? Sure. Neither of them ever hid the fact that they hated each other. Their marriage was a pact to prevent war, plain and simple, and neither side was happy about the outcome.” He gave me a worried glance. “Of course, an appointment like that pales in comparison to what the Church will attempt to pull off using you.”
Just then there was a knock on the door, and a small teenage girl entered the room, dressed in the plain attire of a servant.
“Pardon my lords, but I’ve been asked to prepare the lady for court this evening. The ceremony is said to start soon, and the King does not like to be kept waiting.”
“Ah, Mia. Yes of course, I will leave it to you.” Hendrik smiled at me and gave one of my dead legs a shake. “Good luck tonight, kid,” he said, following behind Victor, who was already gone. “You’re about to walk into a hornet’s nest.”