The servant girl emerged from the wardrobe with a dress in hand. It was a slim, shiny low-cut emerald dress, embroidered with some type of precious stones that I did not recognize, which shimmered in the torchlight. “What do you think, miss?” she asked.
I scrunched up my nose. “Don’t you have anything…less promiscuous?”
She blinked, uncomprehending. “Promis-cus?”
“Like, do you have any dresses that are looser?”
She frowned. “Father Caollin said I should try to make you look your best tonight. You won’t have another chance to be selected as the next queen.”
“Don’t care, find something else.” I thought about my impending encounter with Malcolm, and my stomach gave a flutter.
“Mia, will I get to see the King before the ceremony?”
I had been stranded in this strange land for more than a week now, and was getting really desperate to see something familiar. Namely, my husband. His face, the way he laughed at his own dumb jokes, his smile, his scent. Well, his scent probably would have changed here. Somehow I doubted there were any drugstores in Lentempia with his favorite scent of Old Spice deodorant in stock.
The girl shook her head. “The King come to check on you several times, but you sleep. Now it too late for that. The guests get restless waiting for this ceremony, very important guests, so the King say to start it soon as you wake.” The servant held up a plain, faded blue tunic. “What do you think of this one, miss?”
“Much better,” I said. “So then, the King has a lot riding on tonight?”
“Riding on?” the girl asked.
“Tonight will be very important for him, I mean,” I clarified.
“Oh yes, miss. Tonight will shape the future of the Kingdom. I overhear Princess Alynsa talk about tonight, she call it, ‘The Shitstorm of the Century’.” She looked at me. “You know this word? Shitstorm?”
A better question would be where Alynsa learned a modern term like ‘shitstorm’ in the first place.
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess it kind of means that something will be a big mess. Do you…think tonight will be a big mess?”
She looked down at the blue dress, and began to iron out the wrinkles with her hand. “There has never been a peasant queen before. Yes, this will be big mess. Many will be angry at the King for this.”
Malcolm may have thrown me into this world without asking, I thought, but one thing is clear; he’s made a lot of enemies by trying to move me into the spot as his next queen. The least I can do is play the part, even if just for tonight. He did ask me to trust him, after all.
I looked back at the emerald dress hanging in the wardrobe. A dress like that was probably worth more than my car. “Aw what the hell, I’ll go with the green dress,” I said. “Even a business analyst would look like a queen in that thing.”
“Business Analyst?” Mia asked.
“Oh, it’s like an indentured servant in the Outside,” I said. “You know, a commoner.” Except with stock options.
“Ah yes,” Mia smiled as she returned the blue tunic to the wardrobe, tossing it in the corner, not even bothering to hang it up. “Jillian Reynolds, tonight is very special night for the servants. If you are picked, you will be big hero to us, the first Queen of the Commoners. And to your people, the Outsiders, you will be big hero, as the Queen of the Business Analysts.”
“I like that,” I said. “Who do I speak to in order to make that my official title?”
After a herculean effort to get me fitted into the tiny dress, Mia lowered me into some sort of wooden wheelchair/ wagon hybrid and buckled my legs into place. Both my arms and neck had graduated from completely dead to semi-functional noodles, but the entire lower half of my body was still dead-weight.
“Comfortable?” she asked.
“Most of my body is still numb,” I said, “I don’t think you need to worry about my comfort.”
She propped the bedroom door open, and pushed me out into the hall.
The walls of the hallway were covered in bright tapestries, paintings, flowing white curtains, and so much miscellaneous art that every inch of the surfaces were covered by some type of decoration. Everything was bright or glitzy or gaudy, colored in various shades of salmon, cream, peach and apricot. It looked like something out of a medieval Bed Bath and Beyond catalog, except for the floor, which remained naked stone. The dark shale clashed horribly with the rest of the bubbly decorations.
“Most palaces were built with lighter stone,” Mia explained as she pushed me past the endless rows of tapestries. “Keeps the palace brighter, make the nobles happy. But this palace special. They use the dark stone, much sturdier. This is why they can build it so high. But it make things darker, like the halls, so the nobles use lots of lights and decoration.”
We passed under a crystal chandelier, its candlelight flickering, making our shadows dance across the dark stone floor.
“Most floors have carpets that cover the dark stone. But this was the last queen’s personal hall, and she demanded it be kept bare.”
“So she could hear footsteps easier at night. The queen was very paranoid. Scared of assassins, and convinced someone wanted her dead.”
And now she is, I thought.
An open window sat at the end of the hall, framed by a set of silk, hand-crafted curtains that billowed in the wind, and I got my first glimpse of the view out over the city. This particular window looked directly at one of the red sandstone pyramids next to the palace. I could see the golden steeple poking up from the top of the pyramid tip, centered in the window’s view.
“How far up are we?” I asked.
“The Queen’s floor is level thirty-five,” she said.
“And where is the King’s residence?”
“Two? As in the second floor?”
“Wait, let me get this straight,” I said. “The King can sleep anywhere in a one-hundred story palace, and he chooses the second floor?”
Mia nodded. “It is said that our Holy King has a fear of heights. Unfortunate this is, for the one who sits the Sky Throne. This palace not designed for a man with that fear.”
Well, that’s a new phobia for him, I thought. Although his old queen did just fall from a balcony, after all.
We turned the corner and made our way down the next hall. “The Sky Throne?”
“Yes, the famous throne room of this palace, looks out over the Kingdom. The place we head now. On level eighty-five.”
I looked down at the wheelchair. “And how are we getting this thing up fifty flights of stairs?”
“We do not use the stairs,” she said. “We use the lifts. Designed by the builders and magi together for this purpose. Without it, they would stop building so high. Too much hassle for nobles. Ah, here it is.”
Two guards were waiting at the end of the hall for us, standing on either side of a wrought-iron gate. As we approached, they pushed open the gates, revealing a large wooden platform, square in a shape, and about the size of a small room. The platform rested within a giant hollow shaft, the ceiling so high above us that it disappeared into darkness. Mia pushed me onto the platform, which wobbled under our weight. I looked down and gulped. In the space between the wooden floorboards, I could see the black of an endless drop.
“Are you sure this is safe?” I asked.
“Yes, of course,” Mia said. She motioned at the corners of the platform, each tethered in place by a series of cables attached to pulleys. “Made by the best builders in the world. And reinforced by magi. Perfectly safe.”
There was another man waiting on the wooden platform. “You’ll be taking her to the Sky Throne, then?” the guard asked Mia, who nodded. At her approval, he pulled a small lever next to him on the side of the platform, and then we shot up towards space.
The platform skyrocketed upward, moving way too fast for any medieval contraption. I felt my weight double as we accelerated, and thought I might be sick. After about a minute, I closed my eyes and willed for the ride to stop. Then there was a loud bang like a gun-shot, and I was certain that one of the pulleys had snapped and we were all about to plummet to our death.
Instead the platform screeched to a halt, and the switch-operator said, “Here we are, level of the Sky Throne.” Then Mia was pushing me off the platform, and we were back on solid ground.
“I understand why the King stays on the second floor now,” I said, my eyes still screwed shut.
Mia laughed. “You should open your eyes now miss. This palace, they build it this way just for this room. The Sky Throne.”