The throne room was suspended in a suffocating silence, only broken by Nadia’s wet sobs.
Malcolm leaned in close to whisper in my ear. “Jillian, my angel, you must be overwhelmed by all of this, but your duties as queen can wait. Go and rest. Finish the Trial of the Body. Someone will come for you at the break of dawn, and escort you down to the Royal Gallery. There we shall talk. Alone.”
I opened my mouth to respond, but he was already striding away, a trail of hooded guards following in his wake.
Once he was gone, the dignitaries rose from their seats and began to file out, much more a disorganized mob than the neat line that had entered the room. This time, Mia wheeled me down the aisle as part of their ranks; I had gone from commoner to noble in a matter of hours. Hendrik caught my eye as I left, and flashed me a brilliant smile.
Nadia was still dabbing at her eyes, and the others were whispering in sharp angry voices, pausing only to throw the occasional dirty look at me. I caught bits and pieces of the gossip as they drifted in and out of ear-shot.
“If you thought the King was mad before-”
“The gall of the church! To get that sweet girl Nadia’s hopes up like that… once her brother hears of this-”
“Poor Lord Fuller! And the mouth on that low-born trash the King keeps as his lap dog-”
“Alynsa’s father would roll over in his grave-”
“That girl he calls the Angel, she must be some kind of gypsy enchantress-”
Though I had only been awake for a few hours, the neurotoxins seemed to be sapping me of all my strength. By the time we made it off the lifts, I was already fading. As soon as my head hit the soft feather pillows of the queen’s bed, I was asleep.
My dreams were hazy and disjointed that night, but here’s what I remember.
First I had a dream where Malcolm was torturing an old man by lashing him with a whip. Again and again the old man begged my husband for mercy. Instead he laughed and said, “Not until you’re unconscious.”
After that I dreamed that Malcolm and I moved to New York City, taking up residence in a pencil thin tower that looked out over the river. As we admired our view of the city, we noticed that the streets had become overrun by an army of demons, howling like wolves in pain. Several noticed us looking down, and started scaling up the tower towards our apartment. A man wearing a black mask climbed through the window first, and pointed straight at me with a gnarled finger. When I turned to Malcolm, he was holding a sword, and rushed forward and stabbed the invader through the heart. The man fell to the ground, and dissolved into nothing. Then Malcolm faced me, holding the sword out for me to take, and said, “You must beware the man who wears the mask, babe. In a city like this, I can’t always protect you.”
Last, I dreamed of drowning again, as a motor-boat sailed away, just out of reach.
“Wake up, your highness!”
I opened my eyes. Mia was standing over me, propping me up in the bed.
“The King’s escort come soon, to take you down to Royal Gallery. Can you walk, your highness?”
I poked one of my legs. Still numb. “Looks like I’m still using the chair,” I said.
There was a knock at the door. “This is him now!” she said, rushing over to answer.
The door creaked open, and Father Caollin walked into the room.
His eyes found me, and I glared back at him, adrenaline rushing into my veins, replacing the grogginess of sleep. As we stood deadlocked in a stare-down, I noticed his smile was missing. He looked serious, maybe even concerned.
“Jillian, may I have a word with you? In private, if you would be so kind?”
I glanced over at the servant girl. “Okay. Mia, give us a second please. You can wait right outside, and come back in as soon as we finish.” Knowing that she would be waiting close-by made me feel a bit safer, although I was not sure why.
“Yes, your highness.” She bowed and left the room.
Then it was just me and the tall priest, towering over me. He checked that the door was shut, then launched into a prepared speech. “Jillian, I fear that we misunderstood one another at the ceremony earlier today. I have no wish for there to be any animosity between us. You are in fact the champion of the church, now the next-to-be queen.” He paused. “We are on the same side, after all, in a palace filled with hostility. So I have come to make amends.”
I looked up at the priest, feeling uneasy. I could still remember the taste of lake water in my throat, those agonizing moments back in the throne room when I had forgotten how to breath. Had that all just been my imagination? It had only lasted a few seconds, but I couldn’t shake the image of Caollin grinning back at me as I clawed at my throat.
“You lied to me.”
“You speak of the Trial of the Mind?” He stroked his chin. “I apologize for that.”
“So you admit it then? That it was more than a…what did you call it? A fabrication of my subconscious?”
He returned my questions with a look of what most would mistake for sympathetic empathy, his eyes wide with understanding, his head nodding slightly, as if to confirm that my anger was justified. The expression was well practiced and almost sincere. Almost. It was very subtle, but I saw the corners of his mouth twitch upward. He’s holding back a smile, I realized.
“There is no use denying it now,” he said. “We both know it happened. In my defense, I did have my reasons, and I assure you, they were only in the best interests of the King.”
“You know Alynsa’s position on the King, yes?” The look on my face confirmed his question. “You see, when we first met, I was quite concerned that you might have been an assassin sent by the princess or her little friend the Broken Prince, with explicit instructions to infiltrate the King’s inner circle and assassinate him. The Trial of the Mind was the only way to be sure your intentions were genuine. The title of the Holy Queen requires a thorough character examination, you see.”
Maybe it was the fact that I had just been named Queen, but I was feeling bold. I nodded and said, “Yeah, that all makes sense. But see, the thing is…you’re full of shit.”
The smile was creeping back onto his face, the laugh lines becoming more pronounced. “Jillian,” he rumbled, “I want to be your friend. Malstrom is a very old friend of mine, and trusts me with his life. Surely you can trust his judgment?”
“Malcolm can speak for himself.”
He steepled his fingers together and stared down at the ground. “And how long have you known Malstrom?”
“Nine years. Why?”
“Well, I’ve known Malcolm for…almost twenty years now. I still remember the day I first found him, working as a field-hand for a farmer, nothing but a shapeless mess of a man with no direction in life. Even then, I was looking for talented individuals to add to my modest movement, in what would one day become the largest non-violent coup in Lentempia’s modern history. Your husband, he stuck out like a ruby in a pile of dirt. Rough, though. Unpolished. So I took that uncut gem, and created something to be admired. Something to be feared.”
My cheeks burned red but he raised his hand to warn me that he wasn’t finished.
“I will concede, it is odd to be a nihilist and also believe that one has a destiny. But to be odd is to be human. Thus, even as a younger, more foolish priest, I knew that one day, I would be placed in charge of overseeing the direction of this fair and beautiful Kingdom. I have a philosophy you see, that you only need to give a man patience, persistence, and time, and eventually, he can achieve any of his loftiest ambitions.” He took a seat down on the edge of the bed, leaning a bit closer. “Three things I have in excess.”
“And so my revolution began, one to place me near the helm formerly led by the crumbling Royal Dynasty. Alas, I was but a single man, unable to achieve my goals by myself. For humanity to progress, there needs to be a balance between rulers that can create the new, and those willing to destroy the old. I wanted to lead with someone unafraid to crush the outdated royal institution, while I worked tirelessly to replace it with something better. So I took on many pupils, one of whom would be chosen to command at my side, as the First Priest Reborn.”
“So the ‘First Priest Reborn’ was decided by you?” I cut in. “A nonsense title, nothing but propaganda for you and the church?”
He smiled. “Try to keep up, Jillian. I promise to stop insulting your intelligence if you refrain from asking foolish questions. Do we have an understanding?”
I said nothing, so he continued.
“You see, though I enjoy certain aspects of power, I have an equally strong distaste for the enforcement side of ruling. It is a messy, barbaric business that leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. So that is what I looked for in my partner; a man with the strength to do the things that I despised. And as it so happened, I found not one suitable candidate, but two. The first was Malstrom. The second was an enthusiastic young student named Set.”
“Now both pupils were gifted, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Malstrom, he had the benefit of being an Ageless, and Set…well, he took a lot more pleasure in his work. Maintained a certain theatrical panache in executing the more morbid tasks of the job, to the point that many found him…unsettling. But no man could deny his abilities as a skilled general. So my decision was difficult. There came the day when I needed to choose my champion, so I gave them each a type of…final exam, if you will.”
“There were two smaller churches in my jurisdiction, both rebelling against the reformation movement: one to the north, and one to the south. So I gave each student twenty soldiers, assigned them a church, and told them to quell their resistance, in any way they saw fit. Malstrom led his men up to the church in the north and took swift action. He made an example of the north church’s highest officials by executing them while they slept. After that, he relied on his strong oratory skills and intimidation tactics in persuading the others to bend the knee. He returned with every soldier I had assigned to him, and minimal bloodshed. I was quite impressed.”
Caollin waited patiently for me to lead with the obvious question. “And what about Set?”
“For several days after Malstrom returned, I heard nothing from the south. Then, almost a week later, Set returned, covered in blood and missing half my soldiers. His method of enforcement was a bit more heavy-handed; he chose to storm the gates and slaughter every last parishioner in the church to the south. There were no survivors. When I asked why he had been gone for so long, he explained that they had kept the resistance leaders alive for days, torturing them until they begged for death. To this day, I cannot say what the purpose of this was, other than my hypothesis that he derived some carnal pleasure from doing so. But to Set, this mattered not. He felt he had fulfilled his mission successfully…after all, his resistance had been quelled.”
“Needless to say, Malstrom was selected as my partner. I always try to initiate a peaceful solution whenever possible. Still, that is not to say we should fear violence, but rather view it as a more drastic measure, only to be used during times of…desperation.” His eyes twinkled. “Which is why I stand before you now, Jillian. Do you know why I brought you to our King, back when you turned up at the doors of my cathedral?”
“There are two reasons, my child. First, I hold a certain admiration for you. You told me much about yourself, during the Trial of the Mind, and your story was quite moving. Second, the King and I have been fighting with increasing frequency as of late. By presenting you to him- a person he will love and cherish- I intended to mend the growing rift between us.”
“So you used me as a tool to repair your fractured partnership?”
“Call it whatever you want, but I hope you can appreciate my candor. More important is the frustration developing between myself and our beloved King. And after frustration comes anger, and after anger comes desperation.” The smile remained plastered on his face, but his eyes were cold and threatening. “I still keep in contact with my dear friend Set, you know. And it is not too late to shake up the Royal personnel here if I feel it necessary. Do you understand, Jillian?”
Before I could stop myself, I said, “Father, I have not been here long, but it is way too late to replace your champion. You already named him as the First Priest, and now all of your followers believe you. He’s irreplaceable.”
He forced a dry laugh. “Incorrect. Everybody is replaceable.”
“We’ll agree to disagree. So then…what do you want from me?”
“Only things you already want yourself. To keep the King happy. In-line. Out of my way. Or rather, I need someone level-headed to prevent the King from doing anything foolish. Someone I can trust.” His eyes began to pulsate in color, and there was a ringing in my ears, high pitched like a dog whistle. The rest of the room seemed to melt away, and then there was only him. “So Jillian Reynolds, the Angel from the Outside, I ask you this: can I trust you to act in the King’s best interests?”
I looked back at the father, choosing my words very carefully. “Yes,” I said. “I promise to always act in his best interests.”
His smile widened. “Excellent.” He placed a palm on the bedroom door. “Then we will get along quite nicely, you and I. Now go, and see your beloved King. He’s down in the Royal Gallery, waiting quite eagerly for your arrival. Best not to keep him waiting.”
He paused at the doorway, as Mia bustled back into the room. “Oh, and Jillian. One more thing.” The smile faded, and the glow of his rust-colored eyes seemed to fill the room again. “It is impossible to go back to Pennsylvania. Best not to fill the King’s heads with strange thoughts of fleeing with you for the Outside…or I might have to go in and remove them myself.”
Somehow, the threat seemed genuine. Even stranger, I would later learn from Mia that Caollin had not spoken after she had entered the room; she only saw us locked in an intense, silent stare.