The lift lurched to a stop at the second floor, the double-grated gates rattling open with a shake and a clatter. “Second Floor,” said the lift operator. “King’s Residence.”
The hall was lined with maroon velvet carpets and drapes, simple and dark. All the time I spent exploring the palace, and Malcolm had not invited me to visit his personal floor once. The hall was much more sober than the gaudy decorations of the Queen’s residence with all its frilly tapestries and tall windows looking out into the sky. The view from the windows here was blocked by the low, dark buildings of the the city, that is, the few that were not covered completely by curtains.
Mia hesitated before rolling me out onto the second floor landing. “Lady Highburn has taken residence here, for negotiations with our King. Soon we come upon her guard. Sir Cayno Belin, a hero from the Southlands.” The trajectory of my chair wobbled as she shivered. “Carries no weapon, yet he is the only guard that Nadia takes as an escort. This man, he scares me.”
“What is he, like a ninja or some shit?” The hall was dark and the torches extinguished, my wheelchair moving through the thick padded carpet laboriously as if it was quicksand, so I talked to keep the hall from falling into an unpleasant silence, unsure if the word ninja meant anything to Mia. I found that Residents in the palace were quite skilled in ignoring the bits of my Outside vocabulary that they did not understand.
“Lady Highburn scares me too,” she whispered.
“I’m sure she can’t be that bad,” I said, but the waver in my voice betrayed my true feelings. “Gorgeous women like her, they always get a bad rap for coming off as cold and intimidating. Once you reach out to them though, usually they’re not so bad. My best friend Em is like that to strangers, but after she gets to know you a bit, she won’t stop talking even if you take out her batteries.”
“As you say, my queen, but it would be wise to leave Nadia’s ‘batteries’ alone. It is known that Southland maidens are protective of their possessions.”
“Sorry, she doesn’t actually have batteries, it’s a figure of speech that means…oh never mind.” A faint flickering light was glowing from behind the turn at the end of the hall. “Anyways, put yourself in her shoes. Imagine being stuck alone in this castle, surrounded by crazies like Alynsa, Caollin, and…and…” I had to stop myself from saying Malcolm. Instead I said, “Maybe she could use a new friend.”
Or maybe I could use one, I thought. Hurry up and get here Ko’sa…and please find it in your heart to forgive me.
We turned the corner in the corridor and followed the source of the dim, soft light. A single shadow parted a cluster of torches, which illuminated a patch of carpet at the end of the hall. Between the torches sat a solitary oak door, framed with dark velvet curtains like the windows.
“There is Sir Cayno,” she pointed at the source of the shadow, a red-robed figure leaning against the wall next to the doorway. He was bald with pale pasty skin, and dark purple tattoos where one might expect to find hair. As we approached him, he appeared to be puffing into what looked like a clear glass pipe. “We’ll stay our distance,” she said matter-of-factly.
“So we can breathe. Cayno is selfish with oxygen. He wears the mask to ration his breath.”
As we neared, it became clear that the pipe was some type of breathing apparatus, a glass tube that emerged from the neck of his red robes and ended in a cup around his mouth and nose, like an oxygen mask that an elderly might wear in an assisted living home. The man breathing into the mask looked young and fit though, with thin, sinewy arms poking out from his baggy sleeves. His left hand remained buried in the deep pouch pocket of his robes, but I could see the rustling outline of his fingers flexing and clenching through the fabric. He surveyed us through a pair of calm dark eyes set under a heavy brow. Everything about the man was calm and static…except for the left hand, which continued to twitch spastically from within the pocket.
“Yes?” he said, his voice muffled through the breathing mask.
“I..I’m here to see Nadia,” I said, remembering my authority, “Please inform her that the Queen wishes to speak with her.”
Cayno removed the breathing mask from his face and inhaled. There was a rush of wind from behind my head, blowing my hair to fall in front of my face. It was if all the oxygen had been sucked from the room and into the man’s lungs. The torches on the wall flickered, and the man’s skin seemed to glow, like the embers of a cigar.
His eyes swept over me, curious. “Aye. Father Caollin said ye a lass of the ancestral lands.”
My head cocked sideways as I pushed my hair out of my eyes. “I guess…though you’re the first person to call it that. Everyone here calls it the Outside.” The air in the room now felt thinner, and each breath came shallow and strained.
“Nay. The New Church, tems might as call you all the same- foreigners- but us of the old faith is keen to see the difference. Ancestors and Outsiders, oil and water, we says. Outsiders, tems invade the shores on wooden ships, spreadin’ vile offspring through the motherland like a disease. Good for nuttin but stealing crops and pollutin’ the air we breathe.” I could hear Mia panting behind me as her lungs struggled to process the thin, diluted air Cayno had spared us. “But Ancestors like ye ain’t a scourge; after all, the blood in yas runs older ten the ancient rivers of the Nameless Lands.” He flashed a smile full of broken teeth, revealing a lop-sided overbite. “One ting I know for true, the ting church folk get wrong; Ancestors ain’t no angels of peace. Ye never bring salvation; ye bring war an’ death. In time, cities be burnin’ to the ground in the holy name of Jillian Reynolds, mark that.”
I shot a sideways glance up at Mia, who grimaced back unhelpfully. “Thanks, but I doubt it. I actually prefer cities in their pre-burned state.” I didn’t like the way the guard stared me down as he talked, and was starting to feel light-headed.
He exhaled, and I felt a gust as air flooded back into the room. At once my lungs relaxed, finding oxygen again. Fixing the breathing mask back over his face, his expression turned serious, and for a moment, the twitching hand stopped. “Your motherland…tis hell?”
“The higher plane, your birthplace, the great unknown, s’all the same to me. The New Church, tems call it a paradise, but I reckon it must be hell. Why else would ye be here now?”
“I don’t…can I see Nadia now? Please?”
“Aye.” He took a step closer, and I could feel heat emanating from his body like a bad sun burn. “Since I was a lad, I had want to slay an ancestor, ye know. Just to…see what were to happen.” He took a breath through his apparatus, so that condensation clouded the clear tube. “Ancestors – I wonder- does the skin on ye burn? Held to an open flame, would ye flesh char ta ashes?” The twitching left hand resumed. “Or would my eyes be graced wit a miracle?”
Before I could process the statement he barked a sharp laugh- as if we had been exchanging witty pleasantries- and rapped twice on the door with the knuckles of his right fist. “My lady!” he called into the oak. “A visitor.”
“He’s back early then?” a voice responded, soft and dainty like the fluttering wings of a butterfly. “No matter, send him in.”
Cayno pushed the door open and bowed, but his eyes never left me. “Ye must excuse my tongue, tis rare for men of the old faith to share company with yas. My kin, we speak of unpleasant tings, tem Gods forget to put filters on us bastards, but the fair lady enjoys my company too much to dismiss me.” Another harsh bark of laughter. “Farewell, Lady Jillian.”
“Let’s go Mia,” I said, but the order was unnecessary, she was already pushing me into the room at a frightening speed, putting as much distance between us and the guard as possible.
The room within was marked by the same dark velvet curtains as the hall, the candlelight waning as the glowing tongues of flame receded into puddles of hot wax. Nadia Highburn was seated at a desk with a vanity mirror, her back to us. She was wearing white silk pajamas, carefully combing her hair with a fine-toothed brush made of polished ivory. Her jet black curls were no longer bouncy and full– as they had been back in the throne room– but straight, matted, and slightly frizzy. As we entered the room, her brush caught a knot and she swore loudly.
She set the brush down on the desk in front of her. “I didn’t think you would be back so soon, my lo-” she spun around in her seat to regard us, and her face dropped. “Lady Jillian,” she said, gaping, “what…what an unexpected honor.”
She flew past us towards the door, stumbling over a discarded dress lying on the floor, glimmering with rows of fine jewels sewn into the hem. “Cayno!” she shrieked. “How dare you send a distinguished guest into my private quarters without giving proper warning!”
I heard the course bark of laughter from outside the room, smooth as a cheese grater. “Ye told me to send ‘er in, m’lady.”
The door slammed from behind me, and then Nadia bustled back to her desk, looking disheveled and not at all the composed, graceful lady that had stolen the breath of an entire throne room weeks earlier. “Now then” -she rushed over to a glass cabinet and selected a ruby-colored bottle of wine from the top shelf- “my apologies, Lady Jillian, that you should witness me in this state. Had I known you wished to pay an official visit at this hour…”
“Oh no, please, this is all my fault,” I said, my face turning as red as the wine in Nadia’s hand, and wishing I was back in my own room. “This wasn’t meant to be an official meeting or anything like that. I just heard you were in the neighborhood” -I stopped myself- “err…heard you were visiting the palace, and wanted to have a chat. It’s nothing, I can come back later if this is a bad time.”
She shook her head, her hands still a flurry of activity as she un-stoppered various vials of liquids and mixed them together into a decanter, crafting some sort of cocktail. “Oh nonsense, I can always make time for the Queen-to-be.” She spun on the spot, and there was a flash as her white silk pajamas caught the candle light. Her tan, manicured hand extended towards me, offering a crystal glass goblet filled to the brim with an aggressively purple liquid. “Sweet wine and lemonade, from the vineyards in the south,” she said, with a shy curtsy. “Compliments of my brother. Quite rare this time of year.”
I accepted the drink and nodded my appreciation. She took a seat on the bed, cross-legged, cradling her own goblet in her lap. For a minute she swished the liquid around in the cup, watching it lap against the brim, and then she turned her attention back to me, smiling. “So then, here she is, Jillian Reynolds in the flesh. The reclusive Queen steps out of the shadows, at long last. To what do I owe the honor?”
She doesn’t like me, I noted, studying the smile that ended before it reached the eyes. “Nadia,” I shifted in my chair, “I feel like you and I, maybe we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot here.”
She raised her eyebrows in surprise and placed a hand on her heart. “Oh? I pray I haven’t done anything to offend you, and if so, I can assure you it was not my intention in the slightest.”
“No, no, no,” I stuttered, “look…you don’t have to be polite. We were both in the throne room the day that I was selected as the new queen. Any man in that room would have killed to have your hand, yet the King chose…well….me. I’m sure it must have been quite upsetting, right?”
“I will admit, it came as a bit of a surprise,” she said, and cast her eyes down to the floor. “Up until that moment, the King’s hand had been promised to me. I…I guess I would have appreciated a warning, that’s all.” She tossed her hair back and laughed. “Although, the unexpected is to be expected with King Malstrom. One can never really pretend to know what goes on in that mind of his.”
“You don’t know the half of it.” I grinned back her. “None of that Selection Ceremony madness was my idea, by the way. The whole thing was a ridiculous over the top spectacle, and unnecessarily humiliating to those who were dismissed. To turn the future of a Kingdom into a contest…” I bit my lip and looked back at the gorgeous woman. “Truth be told, I never even wanted to be queen.”
Nadia giggled. “Much of it would have been Caollin’s doing, but we don’t have to worry about that dreadful old man anymore, now do we?” She winked. “Yes, I imagine that for someone of your common birth, it would be quite unnatural and in some ways, cruel to name you Queen. What was it you did again…before your abrupt ascension?”
“I was a business ana- well the title wasn’t important. It was middle class work. I mean look at me; do I look like a queen?”
She raised her glass to her mouth, but decided to speak before the liquid had touched her lips. “Looks can be altered, you know.”
“You mean by molding? Malstrom has suggested it on more than one occasion.” I took a closer look at her face, and could see tiny, thin scars running up and down each side. “Have you…done it?”
Her smile died. “Unlike perfect little Alynsa, I wasn’t born looking this way. Personally, I’ve undergone more molding treatments than any other woman in the history of Lentempia.” She pressed a finger to her temple, and as she did so, I could see ripples pass through the skin unnaturally, emanating from the point of contact like a stone breaking still water. “When I was eleven years old, my father told me I had to marry high, and the only way to do that was to look beautiful. So he paid a small fortune for the best molder in our village to come shape my face into something more…desirable. Can you imagine? Eleven years old?” A darkness gathered on her face like rainclouds, and the tiny scars on the edge of her face became more pronounced. “And do you want to know a secret? Every single treatment was excruciating beyond words. It’s said to be more painful than child birth. Now, I have yet to bear children, but I have had my face peeled off, bit by bit, and I can assure you that it requires a high tolerance for pain. Yet I went through it, over and over again, because I told myself that if I did, one day some dashing, powerful prince would be smitten with my beauty and ask for my hand. To my father and older brother, that was my only purpose, and damned if I was going to fail my duty to the Highburn name.”
“That sounds awful.” I had an urge to reach out and grab the woman’s hand. “You aren’t selling this very well, Nadia.”
“Selling? We don’t have a choice Jillian. Sooner or later, you will have to undergo it too, else you face being cast from the grace of your husband. Consider the alternative; being known as the queen who was discarded for someone younger and more beautiful. And if you’re really unlucky, it might even happen while you gaze out over the city from a high balcony.”
“Has there been any proof that the last queen was murdered? I find it a bit hard to believe, personally.”
“Nothing substantial,” she said with a shrug. “Though, here’s something the historians won’t tell you; in the beginning, Isabelle was quite taken with the haughty ‘usurper’ Malstrom, despite the arranged and controversial nature of their marriage. But he ignored her, called her undesirable, and that drove her into the arms of the Broken Prince, beginning the scandalous affair that would eventually get her killed. It was a calculated crime of revenge, not passion. If only the King had found her more attractive, she might still be with us. My view is that we would be wise to learn from the mistakes of our predecessors.”
“We’ll see. The King and I, our connection is a bit deeper than you may know.” I placed my own drink down on the table, seeing as Nadia was still yet to touch her own. “Anyways, I have a proposition for you.”
Nadia leaned forward. “Oh?”
“Yeah. Look, the King isn’t going to stay here forever. It’s pretty clear to me that he’s not the right fit for this place. Eventually, I am going to take him back home with me, away from this mess. But he feels like he can’t abandon Lentempia right now, with the rebels rising up to challenge his claim. So that’s where you come in.”
She offered a placid smile, waiting for me to continue.
“We need the help of the Highburn family, to quell the Broken Prince and his resistance, before they reach the city and cause real damage. I’ve been told your family commands a standing army within striking distance of the Prince’s forces, now marching on the capital. So consider renewing your alliance with the King, and coming to aid. Help us end those thieves and murderers, and then when Malstrom and I leave for the Outside, we’ll give the throne to you.”
Her jaw fell. “You couldn’t possibly…you would abdicate… just like that?”
I shrugged. “My top priority is getting my husband away from this conflict safely, back to the Outside, and he won’t agree to that until we’ve achieved some sort of peace. He needs to feel like he’s accomplished something here. And if that happens, Alynsa the psychopath is the last person I want to succeed me. Help us out, and I give you my word, the throne is yours.”
The corners of her lips twitched upwards into a new smile, one that turned her face from something pleasant into a twisted expression that was almost ghastly. “You are not the queen I expected, Jillian. There are a million ways you could busy yourself– public addresses, coronations, enjoying meals that haven’t been fished out of a garbage barrel–and yet, the thing you care most about is war.”
“I’m here to support my husband. And Cecilia the Disowned should be burning in hell for what she did to the men at the church’s outpost. Some of them were still boys.”
She laughed. “I heard she wrote a letter to you as well, but no matter, it seems we share a common enemy in the Broken Prince. Very well, I accept your proposition.” She picked up her goblet and raised it to me. “I shall speak to my brother first, but I am confident to say that Highburns shall renew their alliance with the Crown under these generous conditions of succession. And with that will come a direct engagement with the Broken Prince as we come to the aid of our allies. Now then, shall we drink and seal the pact?” My glass met hers with a clink. “To us, the women working to save this Kingdom from disaster, while our men squabble like children.”
The mouth of the cup had touched my lips when I felt the eyes of Nadia watching me, glinting like two slices of moonlight, still yet to disappear behind her own glass. My stomach clenched, gripped with a sudden terror. Without thinking, I forced a sneeze and sent the cup flying out of my hand, where it shattered on the carpet in an ugly purple stain that would never come out.
“Oh my god,” I cried, with as much feigned embarrassment as I could summon, “I am so sorry Nadia!” I reached down, straining from the wheelchair at the glittering shards. “I am such a klutz, here, let me help pick this up.”
“Nonsense, you will cut yourself! Please, the servants will get it.” She placed her own cup down. “After all, accidents happen. Here, let me fix you another.”
“No, that’s alright!” I realized I was practically shouting, and lowered my voice. “See, I really should be heading to bed now. The drink here…it….it’s been known to upset my delicate stomach anyways.”
“Of course. That’s quite understandable.” Nadia sprang to her feet, stepping carefully around the broken glass, and wrapped her arms around me in a soft embrace. I could smell her perfume, a flowery scent of lavender that clung to my nostrils. “Lady Jillian, it has been a pleasure. I will see you tomorrow night at the banquet then?”
“I look forward to it.” My chin jerked upwards to find my servant, still hovering over me. “Mia, if you could escort me back to my bed chamber?”
The iron lift gates clattered shut, and then the floor jerked upward. From above my head, Mia put a hand on my shoulder. “Well done, my queen. The hot temper of Lady Highburn is both renowned and feared. Many diplomats have tried and failed to treat with her. For one of your birth to forge a pact that the King himself could not close: a great success, this.”
I dismissed her words with a hand wave. “Inform the royal guard that I’d like that one watched closely. If she so much sniffs a glass of wine, I want to know about it.”
“It will be done.” Hesitating, she added, “My queen, this may not be my place, but may I ask why?”
“I can’t be sure,” I said with a glower, “but I think that bitch just tried to poison me.”