The curtains in the hall began to fall to the floor, one by one, starting with the windows closest to the entrance, spreading like a black wave towards the throne platform. The velvet abyss swallowed the natural blue light of the sky, darkening the faces of the crowd into silhouettes.
For a second all was dark, and then torches ignited around the room, joined by the fanfare of trumpets from behind us. “That’ll be the dignitaries,” Hendrik said.
A procession of people entered from the back doors and began to march down the center aisle of the throne room. Everyone rose from their seats and bowed their heads, or rather, everyone who was not currently paralyzed from the waist down. Instead, I craned my neck to watch the line as it approached. First came tall, hooded guards holding very long spears. Then a group of older men and women, all taking seats near the front of the room, closest to the thrones.
Next was Alynsa. She was wearing a plain, conservative black dress, looking sullen. A young girl was holding her hand, also in black, swinging her arm in time with each step.
The girl from the funeral, I thought. The queen’s daughter, Raelyn.
The woman behind them drew the attention of the entire court. She was tan with dark features and hair as black as a starless night sky. Long and flowing, it tumbled all the way down to the small of her back. She wore a tight navy dress – almost artistic in how revealing it was – that exposed her flat midriff and left little else to the imagination. She swung her hips a bit too widely as she walked, her high heels clicking against the marble, all too aware that the eyes of every man (and even many of the woman) were fixed on her backside as she strutted down the aisle.
“Nadia Highburn, the Baroness,” Hendrik whispered. “Her brother owns about half the land in the South.” He gave a low whistle as she walked by. “I’ve traveled these lands far and wide, from the rustling deserts beyond the Nameless City to the East, down to the crashing waterfalls of the South Canyons, and have found only one certainty in life: there is no other booty in the Kingdom quite as fine as the one we admire now.”
“Solid counseling Hendrik,” I said, making a mental note that the word ‘booty’ was also a part of the bard’s vocabulary. “Why does she get to walk with the dignitaries? Is she part of the Urias line too?”
“Nope, quite the opposite. The Highburns were famously the first noble family to betray the Urias line in favor of the church. She’s been trying to seduce her way into a crown, wants a diamond-studded headpiece to match all those shiny bangles jangling on her arms. Not that she needs anymore valuables at this point; I wager the jewelry she’s wearing now appraises at the annual export value of a small city-state. Real piece of work, that one.”
Hendrik continued to fill me in about the other people walking down the aisle, but I had stopped listening. I scanned the rest of the line, searching.
“Malcolm…Malstrom’s not there,” I said.
“What? You expected the King to show up on time?”
“I don’t think the King has ever been on time for anything in his life. He likes to keep us waiting. I’d wager it would be another thirty to forty minutes before he shows that holy face of his.”
Hendrik was right. Minutes passed, and the entire room sat in a dark reflective silence, exchanging hushed whispers that passed through the air like hisses from a snake-pit. I could feel Alynsa’s gaze fix on me every so often. Her stare radiated a certain intensity that was difficult to ignore. After a while I began to get fidgety.
We had been waiting for almost forty minutes before anything happened. Finally, a small, rat-faced old man with drooping skin and shifty eyes stepped up to the front of the room. He looked out over us, and spoke with a voice that rustled and cracked like old parchment. “My esteemed guests, I apologize for this inconvenience.” He turned tentatively to Alynsa. “Perhaps some music, while the King prepares?”
She nodded, her eyes never leaving me. With her approval he clapped twice, and a quartet of violinists stood up from their seats and rushed towards the front of the room.
I gave Hendrik a questioning look. “That’s Lord Fuller,” he whispered. “Noble Born. His little family of rodents has served the Urias Line for generations, leaving their droppings all over the castle for the rest of us to step in. Sniveling little sycophants, the lot of ’em.”
The violinists took positions at the front of the room, next to Lord Fuller. Then he turned and looked directly towards us, and coughed.
“Hendrik,” he said, “perhaps you could sing for us?” He wiped his glistening brow with a handkerchief, stuffing the soiled rag back in his robes. “Start with the Lament of the First Priest, in accordance with this momentous occasion.”
Hendrik leaned back in his chair, and kicked his legs up so they rested on the arm of my wheelchair. “Piss off Fuller,” he said, with a rock-star smile.
The entire room went dead quiet. The man’s frail jowls wobbled indignantly, like a turkey’s wattle. “Pardon me, boy?”
“I no longer play music at the request of the Royal Family’s pet. I sit here as a Royal Councilman, not an entertainer. Or is your failing memory so poor that you have forgotten?” He tossed a nut up to himself, catching this one in his mouth. “I’ll tell you what, why don’t you give the vocals a shot? Even a talentless hack like yourself could pick up a basic song like that one.”
Then Hendrik snapped his fingers, and winked. When he spoke next, the voice was no longer his, but instead a perfect replication of Fuller’s dry wheeze, indistinguishable from the original. “That is…if those dried up things you call windpipes can do anything besides squeak at the princess and cough up dust.”
There was a ripple of laughter across the room. He wasn’t lying, I thought. He really can change his voice.
The old man’s cheeks flushed with anger. “Get up here this instant, Hendrik, you base-born scum, or I will have the guard sitting closest to you remove your head from your-”
“Threatening my favorite councilman again, Lord Fuller?” came a voice from the back of the room.
Malcolm strode down the aisle, flanked by two tall hooded guards in black robes, both a head taller than himself. He looked thinner and more haggard than I remembered, and there were still bandages wrapped around the left side of his face from the explosion at the funeral. Even with his anemic figure, people cowered back as he walked by.
Fuller blanched, falling to his knees. “My lord, I was only…if you could see…”
“Take him to the dungeons,” Malcolm said to the guard on his left. “Lash him until he passes out. He can sleep down there tonight, with the rest of the rats in the palace.” He turned on Alynsa. “Unless the princess has any objections to this?”
The princess sat on her hands, looking about ready to blow a gasket. Her stare was withering enough to wilt flowers, but she said nothing.
“No? Good. Then let us get started.” He finished his walk across the room, past Fuller as the guards led him away, and ascended the steps to his throne two at a time. Although the tone he took with Alynsa was haughty and combative, his hands trembled slightly as he lowered himself down onto the glass seat.
He’s nervous, I realized. For a long moment, he fidgeted with the ringlet resting on his head, seemingly unaware that there was a room full of people waiting on him.
Nadia coughed deliberately. “My lord, you look unwell. Have you been getting enough rest since that pitiful attack on your life? The one ordered by that vile little vermin of a prince?” She paused to shoot a nasty glare at Alynsa.
“Quiet Nadia. You will speak when spoken to.”
She bowed her head low. “Of course, your majesty.”
His eyes wandered around the room, searching, his hands clenching and un-clenching around the armrests of his throne. Then they found me and we made eye-contact, and my breath caught.
When Malcolm first dragged me into the bathroom a week ago, I was so sleepy that any changes to his appearance went unnoticed. Now I studied him closely, looking for any evidence of his supposed aging.
There were new scars here and there, but otherwise nothing to suggest he had lived one thousand years. Same head of messy brown hair, same slightly upturned nose, same soft chin that he was moderately self-conscious about. Not even any new wrinkles. Everything looked the same, everything except…
The eyes, I realized. They looked different. Older, and paler in shade, as if the passage of time had faded the color from irises that were once as dark as brown ink. His body may still look young, but his eyes betray a soul that has lived dozens of lifetimes, I thought.
Still, it was a face that I had missed dearly. I wanted to jump out of my chair, rush over, and throw my arms around him. Instead, I beamed back at him, with all the warmth I could muster. Found you, I mouthed at him.
The King averted his gaze, but I saw the stern scowl melt from his face, and he covered a shy grin with one of his hands. Then his eyes closed and he took a deep breath, exhaling through his nose. Once his hands had steadied, he opened his eyes back up and began to speak.
“Welcome all, to Lentempia’s very first Selection Ceremony of the Gods. I have spent many years studying the Holy Tablet, and it has revealed that the age of dynasties is passing. Our rulers must come from the Gods themselves, not a corrupt bloodline that claims superiority to that of the common man. I stand before you all as the First Priest Reborn, Champion of the New Church, treading in the footsteps of the savior. For it was he that delivered this country from darkness, he who overpowered the False Pontiff Bahn’ya, and he who outwitted the False Pontiff Klay. He followed the instructions of the divine, and in return, humanity was saved from darkness. Today, as I sit this throne before you, I strive to emulate his magnificence, as a servant to this Kingdom.”
“Therefore, I gather all eligible woman here today, to select the next queen of Lentempia, an angel befit for my holy hand. I ask for the Gods to guide that hand, so our next queen may be revealed…”
He kept talking for sometime after that, reciting various rituals and prayers that made little sense to me. The only person that looked more bored than me was Hendrik, who began to flick his remaining bits of walnut at the nobles in front of us, like a restless child. I was sure that the King noticed the disturbance he was creating, but did not seem to mind.
Just when my attention was starting to drift, Malcolm said, “Now, any woman who claims to be the next rightful ruler of this Kingdom will step forward.”
At once there was a shuffling, as all the suitresses in the hall stood up and walked forward. My chair lurched, Mia easing it towards the aisle. Rolling away, I felt Hendrik’s hand clasp mine, soft and warm. “Good luck kid,” he said with a squeeze.
Mia maneuvered my chair through the commotion, towards the front. All the eligible women formed a line at the foot of the throne, extending from one side of the room to the other. I noticed that Alynsa didn’t even bother stepping forward. She sat glowering in her seat, too proud to take part in the event.
The selection proceeded with clumsy efficiency. Malcolm walked back and forth, hands clasped behind his back, dismissing the women one by one. He would stop in front of one and say, “The God’s do not see you fit,” and they would return to their seat. Soon he tired of repeating the long phrase, and changed it simply to, “not you,” or “no.” Each time he walked by, I looked up at him hopefully, searching for a wink, or a nod, or even a roll of the eyes to acknowledge the ludicrous situation we both found ourselves in. But he remained stern and serious, devoted to the task at hand.
After several tense minutes, the field had narrowed down to just five woman: myself, Nadia, and three other stunningly beautiful girls that looked like photo-shopped versions of human beings.
Abruptly, Malcolm stopped his pacing and shot a look over towards Alynsa. “Princess, why have you not volunteered yourself as a candidate for queen? Your official position is that a Urias should sit the throne, is it not?”
She sat firm, unmoving. “Malstrom,” she said softly, “I have no intention of partaking in this fool’s game you call a ceremony.”
“The will of the divine is not a fool’s game. Only a Urias would be so vain as to ignore their cries for a true queen.” His voice dropped. “Come princess, stand over with the other finalists and be judged by the Gods for all to see. Your King commands it.”
The princess remained planted in her seat.
“I SAID YOUR KING COMMANDS IT!” he screamed.
I caught Caollin out of the corner of my eyes. He was laughing softly to himself.
Slowly, Alynsa rose from her chair and walked over to stand next to me, shaking with anger. Malcolm dismissed the three women I did not know, so that it was only me, Nadia and Alynsa standing before the King.
Nadia shot a confused look in my direction, as if noticing me for the first time. “My lord, who is she?” She adjusted herself so that her large breasts were pointing more prominently towards the King. As she did so, a bit of walnut flew out from the crowd and nailed her on the side of the head. Her eyes shot towards the benches, momentarily distracted, and then she dismissed it as nothing and continued. “My King, the Gods would know to bless the true queen with a beauty to match your valor. It would be almost cruel should they have you settle for one with,” – she paused to shoot me a smirk- “the unfortunate looks of a commoner.”
“Nadia, I told you to shut up,” Malcolm said. His anger flared up into a dark glower. “I won’t ask you again.” Then he turned to face me, fixing me with those pale eyes. “And she is no commoner. She is Jillian Reynolds, the Angel from the Outside. Her presence here today is nothing short of a miracle.”
Alynsa cut in next. “Malstrom, if you seriously expect me to honor that wench as-”
“The next person that speaks out of turn gets their tongue removed from their throat.” Malcolm stared Alynsa back into silence. He looked over the three of us, his hands shaking again, and said, “Alynsa and Nadia, you are both dismissed.”
Immediately Alynsa turned her back on the King and rushed towards the benches, stopping only to grab Raelyn. She stormed back out into the aisle and through the large iron doors, pulling the child by the hand after her. The doors banged shut with a heavy thud that echoed across the hall.
Malcolm watched her leave. “Let her throw her tantrums,” he said. “It only proves she was never fit to rule this Kingdom.”
Next to me, Nadia started to sob, large wet tears rolling down her face, smearing her dark makeup. Malcolm ignored her; now he saw only me. He fell to one knee before me and bowed his head.
“Jillian Reynolds, the Angel from the Outside, you are truly a gift from the Gods. Will you rule by my side, as Queen of Lentempia?”
I looked down at his mop of brown hair, the silver ringlet lost in its mess, and felt the eyes of the entire room on me. What have you gotten us into, Malcolm? I thought.
“Yes,” I said. “I will be your queen.”