Authors: Intisar Khanani
By Intisar Khanani
Copyright 2012 Intisar Khanani
All rights reserved.
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“Try not to embarrass us,” my brother says. “If you can.”
We stand at the center of a semicircle of nobles, Mother two steps ahead of us. I sidle back, wishing I could leave. Lord Daerilin, standing to my left, raises a hand to hide his smirk but that only calls more attention to it. I clench my teeth and glare at the gates, waiting.
My patience is rewarded when a sentry calls down to us, trumpeting the arrival of our guests. The party trots through the open gates, tack jingling, the first riders pulling to the side to let those behind through. And through. How many are there? I count a score of men, all in light armor, before I realize there must be at least double that. At their center ride five men, all similarly dressed. But where is the king?
“The carriage,” my brother says to himself, watching it roll in behind the last of the guards. But that makes no sense. What king would leave himself unprotected from behind? Especially when traveling with near fifty fighting men?
With perfect discipline and with no audible command, the whole crowd of horses and men resolve into formation, the guards mounted and lined up two deep to form an aisle between us and the five men that had been at their center. The men dismount in fluid leaps, as if they have no use for hands or stirrups. I catch a glimpse of our master hostler waiting by the stables to arrange for the horses, his brows shooting up, the look in his eyes one of admiration. But of course: Menaiyans are born horsemen. The king would ride.
“His Majesty, the King of Menaiya,” one of his men announces as the king steps forward. I ignore the rest of the introduction: long lists of titles and genealogy. Instead, I study the king. He wears the traditional summer cloak of his people: a flowing, unhooded affair with arms and an open front, silver embroidery cascading along the edges and accenting the midnight blue cloth. Beneath he wears a knee-length tunic lightly embroidered with silver and stones, and the curious, loose pants of his people. His hair falls free to his shoulders, black laced with silver, setting off the warm bronze of his face and softening an otherwise hawk-like countenance. A fine tracery of wrinkles gathers at the corners of his eyes, lining his brow and accenting his mouth. He glances over our gathering of nobles and smiles, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in that smile. I cannot tell whether he despises us, or finds us no more impressive than Lord Daerilin might a mob of villagers; I cannot tell anything at all.
“Her Majesty, Queen Dowager and Regent of the Kingdom of Adania,” Steward Jerash announces in turn, and though Mother wears her finest brocade dress—still too warm for this early in the fall—she has barely half the majesty the king projects. But then, our kingdom is nothing compared to theirs, a patch of forest fortuitously protected by encircling mountains. Menaiya is a land of sweeping plains, southern farms and northern forests. And soldiers. I swallow hard, training my eyes on the ground. We only
fifty men in our Hall. The king has brought enough seasoned warriors to take our Hall and add our kingdom to his like a spare coin to his purse.
Mother offers a curtsy to the king, who bows in return. At least she does not seem unduly concerned by the number of warriors in our courtyard. Jerash introduces my brother next, who bows a little lower than the king did. And then it is my turn. I curtsy, aware of the king’s scrutiny, the way the whole of his entourage has turned their gaze on me. In just a moment, Mother will speak, inviting the king in. In just a moment—
“Princess Alyrra,” the king says. My eyes flick up to his, my legs frozen in their curtsy. He studies me as if I were a prize goat, his gaze sliding over me before returning to my face, as cold and calculating as a butcher. “We have heard tell of you before.”
“My lord?” My voice sounds unnaturally high even to me.
“It is said you are honest. An unusual trait, it would seem.”
I open my mouth, close it, force some semblance of a smile to my lips. My brother has gone rigid, his hands pressed flat against his thighs.
“You are most kind,” my mother says, stepping forward. The king watches me a moment longer, leaving my mother waiting. I cannot say what he thinks, why he would mention something sure to raise old grievances, why he would care. Or is he only toying with us? Laughing at us?
He turns to my mother, offering her a courtly smile, and at her words he accompanies her up the three stairs and through the great wooden doors of our Hall. My brother and I trail behind him, a mix of our nobles and the king’s entourage on our heels.
“Honest Alyrra,” my brother mocks, his voice loud enough for those nearest us to hear. “What a very clever, sophisticated princess you must be.”
I bite my lip. It is going to be a long week, watching my back and hiding down corridors. And with so many guests, the wine and ale will flow freely, which will make things even worse.
, I think at the king’s back.
Just go home and leave us alone.
I manage to slip away when the king retires to his rooms to refresh himself. He will meet with my mother, brother and their Council of Lords before dinner. Even though it’s unlikely my brother will come after me at once, I take no chances, seeking out one of the few places he would never stoop to check.
The kitchen is caught firmly in the throes of preparation for tonight’s feast. Cook shouts orders as she spices a pot. Dara, Ketsy and three other serving girls hustle to keep up with the chopping, slicing and gutting. In addition, a soldier attempts to knead dough by squishing it between his fingers, and poor little Ano who only gets pulled into the kitchen in dire emergencies struggles valiantly to tie the roast to a spit.
“Give me that,” I tell the soldier, rescuing the dough from him. “You help Ano with the goat.”
He throws me a grateful glance and joins Ano by the fire. They have the roast spitted and turning over the fire and he is about to make a timely escape when Cook spots him.
“Where do you think you’re going? And what about that dough?”
“But the lady,” he stumbles, gesturing towards me.
“I’ve got it,” I assure Cook.
“You most certainly don’t,” she snaps. “Dara, you take the dough. I hope,” she glares at the soldier, “you have at least learned how to chop things?”
Before the man can stammer his reply, I put in my own argument, “Cook, I’m not needed anywhere else. At least let me finish this.”
“I’ll not have the king think we are in such dire straits that our own princess must help in the kitchens. You go sit in the gardens or do whatever it is that great ladies do in their sort of court.”
“I’ve no idea what great ladies do,” I say, pulling my bowl away from Dara. “I’m only a middling sort of lady. And our gardens are all herbs; they’re hardly worth sitting in.”
“Give it here,” Dara says, making a swipe for the bowl.
“You’ll give Dara that bowl or you’ll not have breakfast tomorrow,” Cook says with a glint in her eye. I hesitate, but she has made good on such threats before.
“Oh, fine,” I cry, surrendering the bowl to the laughter of all.
“Go on, now,” Cook admonishes me. “I’ll let you help again when he’s gone.”
“Maybe I won’t want to then,” I suggest.
“Maybe you’ll still be wanting your breakfast,” she replies with a smug smile.
I leave to a chorus of laughter. I make a wide berth of the meeting rooms, unsure whether the meeting has begun yet or not. I expect Mother and her Council will harp on about the deplorable condition of the road through the high passes, and how it is beginning to crumble here and there and ought to be better shored up. I can’t conceive of anything else to discuss: while we rely on our trade with Menaiya, they have much more significant trading partners than ourselves. I can’t imagine the king worrying overmuch about the one road through the mountains to a tin-cup kingdom. He certainly won’t obsess over it with the single-minded zeal of my mother and her Council.
I have discussed the state of the roads with my mother only once before. “If they are improved,” I had pointed out earnestly, “we may get more slavers coming in.”
Mother had raised her brows. “And then we might have more slaves.”
“They take slaves too,” I had said, shocked.
“What are a few peasants from our borders to us?” Her voice was cold, bored. “Really, Alyrra, you say such absurd things.”
I never mentioned the roads again.
Now I pace the confines of my chamber, my door bolted, waiting for dinner. I would much rather go for a ride, but it is too close to evening, and I don’t dare arrive late to the feast. I dig out my best dresses, brush them off, and inspect them for signs of wear. I have three I keep for special occasions, and I’ve already worn the best for the king’s arrival. After all, it’s not as if that many foreign kings come visiting. Three dresses are enough for the yearly assemblies, the feasts when my mother’s vassals visit, though I suspect the king and his court would expect more. I shrug and settle down to mend a fraying hem.
Jilna checks on me as the day fades. “Cook is making an awful ruckus down there,” she says as she runs her hands over the repaired hem. “Did you fix this?”
“Just now. What’s she upset about?”
“The dough didn’t rise so she had to start another batch, and the roast isn’t cooked through yet, and any number of other things.” Jilna straightens, her worn face easing into a smile. “I’m not sure if she just likes grumbling, or if it’s her way of assuring she gets complimented when everything turns out.”
“A bit of both,” I say.
“Ha!” Jilna laughs and steps back to inspect me. “You need jewelry.”
“So you look more like a princess and less like a well-dressed scullery maid.”
For all Jilna’s efforts, as I join my family waiting to enter the Hall, I realize how shabby I must look in my old dress with my string of pearls and my three gold rings. Mother still wears her brocade dress, a massive gold brooch pinned to her breast. My brother wears the long gold chains that were once our father’s, his arms crossed over his broad chest, his boots planted firmly against the floor. And the king will wear his wealth not in gold but in the muted richness of the fabric of his clothes, the perfect finish of his boots. It is a much more subtle and certain majesty.
“He’s coming,” Mother says, cutting off their quiet conversation. “Smile.”
They do, bright and cheery and falsely welcoming. The king, entering with the two other men we have learned are his vassals, glances at them with an answering curl of his lips. Then his gaze turns to me. I look back, wondering what he expects, what he is looking for. Why would he look at me so, but not them? His dark eyes, unsmiling, hard as onyx, give me no answer.
When he speaks, it is to Mother. I follow our party into the Hall for dinner, taking my usual seat as the rest of our party settles.
“Trying to look your part?” The voice, filled with contempt, could hardly be mistaken for any other. Not that I could, having sat beside him for ten years of which the last three have been torture.
“Lord Daerilin,” I say, risking a glance at him. “I see you are wearing your velvet doublet.”
Daerilin turns a mottled pink but keeps going. He must have a special barb saved up for me today. “It’s a pity you can’t manage to put on something finer for such a guest as this. Especially when he’s come all this distance for you.”
I nearly drop my goblet. “What?”
Daerilin leans back in his chair, his expansive stomach pressed against the table. “Surely you know why the king has come.”