“Crispin! If you don’t come here this very moment, I’m going to turn you into the ugliest icicle this Realm has ever seen!”
I’ve learned to add ‘ugly’ to any threat – he’d never admit it, but he’s the vainest of all my Guardians.
“What has he done now?” Tamara asks, looking up from the book she’s reading. She was one of the first to notice that I’m not at all like my mother, and she’s taking full advantage of it. Whenever she has some free time - which is not very often - she spends it in my warm sitting room, reading by the fire. It’s nice to have some female company from time to time, even though she could be my grandmother. I’ve not found the courage yet to ask her about her age. She may be small and old, but she’s fierce and a little scary. It didn’t take me long to figure out that she’s the person who pulls all the strings in the palace. All the generals with their medals are only her puppets, nothing more.
“Are you having a little lovers’ quarrel?”
Her eyes twinkle in delight. She loves a good gossiping.
“Look what he did to my dress for tonight!” I throw her the garment and she catches it with one hand. Good reflexes for her age, that’s for sure.
Mara unfolds the dress and starts to giggle.
“I like that boy. He’s got a good sense of humour.”
I sigh in exasperation. “He cut holes into my dress. Two holes in two very inappropriate places. I wouldn’t call that humour. It’s malicious mischief.”
That only increased Mara’s laughter. “I hope you’re going to wear it like that to the ball?”
“Then you’re giving him what he wants. Show him that you stand above his jokes. Wear the dress, but with a few modifications.” She gives me a wink and leads me to the wardrobe.
May my revenge be sweet.
* * *
I’ve lost count of the number of balls my mother is organising in my honour. They’re all aimed at different audiences: The Guardians, the common folk, the military, the diplomatic community. Now that she has recovered from her assassination attempt, she’s hellbent on showing everyone that nothing has changed. That she’s still the Queen and Mother of Gods and just as strong as ever. And it seems to work; the rumours that floated through the palace for a few days after the attack have quieted down. I’m glad for Beira - even though it’s not true. She’s getting weaker and she’s refusing to tell me why. She’s very adept at keeping up appearances, but when we’re alone in our private quarters, she sometimes lets down the walls she’s built.
The assassination attempt has left her weakened, but it’s not just that. Her magic isn’t as strong as it used to be, and that’s never happened before. I think deep down she’s scared, and to be honest, so am I. I’ve known her as this unapproachable, divine being for all my life, and to think that she’s got weaknesses boggles my mind. It makes her more human, sure, but she’s not supposed to be human.
“Please stand for the Daughter of Winter, the Slayer of Demons, the Heir to the Throne, her Royal Highness, the Lady Wynter.”
Slayer of Demons, that’s a new one. I assume it’s been one of the guys who told the herald to say that. They like to do stuff like that. I think they’re a little bored and messing with the Court routine gives them a bit of satisfaction.
I enter the Great Hall to the sound of applause and am tempted to leave immediately. I hate the attention I get at these kinds of events. It’s bad enough having to sit still at the dais, surrounded by the most important people in the Realm. Doing small talk. Bleurgh. But walking through the biggest room in the palace, trying not to trip or look awkward on my way to the other end is pure torture. And tonight, I don’t even have my Guardians to steady me. They’re in some kind of meeting and won’t be joining us until later.
Now that they’ve safely brought me to my mother’s domain, they’ve started taking on some of their old tasks again. They’re still my assigned guards, but having four of them around me at all times would be a waste of resources. They’re some of the best fighters in the Realm, after all, and they’re in high demand to pass on their skills to the younger Guardians. I’m not quite sure how I feel about that. On one hand, I’m glad I don’t have an entourage wherever I go, on the other hand, I miss having them around all the time. Even at night, it’s rarely all of us together. Storm is the one who’s absent the most, being the highest ranking of the four. Sometimes he’s away all night and then sleeps in the morning when I have my own things to do.
I miss our days on the road. It was stressful, dangerous, but I loved it. Now, we’re in stasis, surrounded by Court formality and intrigue, always the subject of gossip. I’m slowly learning how to behave in this setting, but I make enough mistakes to entertain the servants.
Another thing I can’t get used to: servants. They learned pretty quickly that I prefer to take a bath on my own, thank you very much. If I want company, I’ll take one (or several) of my Guardians with me. I don’t need handmaidens messing with my hair or handing me clothes, and I absolutely can’t stand them telling me how beautiful I am when they apply my makeup. Whenever I look into a mirror, I don’t recognise myself. My features have changed, my cheekbones are higher, my eyes brighter, my hair glossier. I’m no longer plain and ordinary and I’m hating it. I want to go back to being the old Wyn, the one who could put her hair into a messy bun and stay in pyjamas all day long while working on her thesis. Here, I have to wear pretty dresses and behave like a lady. Yuck.
“Walk,” the herald hisses and I notice I’m standing in the large doorway, being stared at by the hundreds of guests waiting for me to make my way to the dais. Luckily, my mother hasn’t arrived yet. Despite our differences, I do seek her approval. She’s the expert in how to be Queen, so I better learn from her how to behave like a princess.
Ignoring the stares and hushed conversations, I walk through the Hall, keeping my eyes trained on the high table. Out of the corner of my eyes, I see a few people pointing at my chest. I’m sure Mara will give me a roundup of public opinion later on. I’m either setting a new trend or making myself the laughing stock of the Court.
Instead of having my boobs on display like Crispin intended when he cut two holes into my dress, I now have a strip of ruffled black fabric running around my upper body like a corset that’s too high, culminating in a large golden bow on my chest. The holes are used for the golden band to disappear back into the dress, giving it a three-dimensional appearance. It’s crazy. And I have to admit that I quite like the effect. It makes me look like a Christmas present that is waiting to be unwrapped. Not now; later, after the feast, by my four Guardians. Who will hopefully be here soon, so I can tease them all evening.
This is the first time I make it to my seat without stumbling. I may turn into a proper princess yet. As soon as I sit down, the guests follow suit and start their conversations once more. A few are still looking in my direction, but most are finally distracted again. None of the other important guests have arrived yet, so I sit on my own, letting my thoughts drift. I’ve been here for two weeks now and it feels both shorter and longer at the same time. There’s so much to learn and so much to understand that I sometimes think my head will explode. Some of the Court rules are archaic and desperately need some modernisation. The lack of electronics is still strange, but at the same time, their magic makes many things possible that technology never would. Who needs Skype when you can have a telepathic conversation?
The air here is filled with magic and my very own magic is responding to it. She gets stronger every day - and a little wilder. Sometimes she’s hard to control, it’s as if she gets high on magical energy. The Guardians told me that it would become easier to control her over time, but somehow, I’m experiencing the opposite. Most days, I’m having to fight to keep her inside. She’s like a kitten that wants to play with a ball of string even though she knows its forbidden.
Yesterday, I accidentally froze my bathwater. Luckily, nobody else was in the room with me so I was saved from the embarrassment. But I’m a little scared at how easily my magic dispelled my hold on her and ran amok.
“How are you tonight, darling?” my mother suddenly asks as she materialises next to me. I envy that skill, it would have saved me from walking through the hall like an idiot. Or like a princess, which was basically the same thing. I really wasn’t cut out to be royalty.
“I’m alright,” I reply vaguely and turn my attention to the food that had magically appeared on the plate in front of me. I was still getting used to all the magic here. Back on Earth, I had to hide my abilities. Here, I’m more than just encouraged to use them; it’s expected of me. The ladies at Court don’t use their hands for most things, they use their magic. Brushing your hair? Use magic. Apply makeup? Use magic. Wipe your bum? You get the idea...
“What are you having for dinner?” Beira asks me. Is she attempting small talk or is she actually interested? I glance at my plate. Pancakes, strawberries and a heap of cream. Comfort food. I must be feeling like I’m in need of a hug. Or four.
“Do you need me for anything tomorrow?” I ask her instead. “I’d like to go and explore the area a little.”
“You want to... Why not? I guess you should know the Realm you’re ruling over. But not without your Guardians.”
That was exactly what I was hoping for. This means I get them all for myself, for an entire day. No politics, no boring stuff, just me and my four men. It will be just like being back on the road. Hopefully with a bit less danger.
Speaking of the devils... Crispin and Frost enter together, mostly ignored by the crowd who’re busy emptying their plates. They spot me immediately – the disadvantage of sitting on the dais in full view of everyone. I give them a wave and smile, but they continue to stare at me from a distance. Crispin is pointing at me – no, at my boobs. That’s when I remember my dress and I grin mischievously. He’s noticed how I turned the joke on him. Poor Guardian. He looks like a sad little puppy who’s had his favourite toy taken away. That’s the punishment for cutting up my clothes.
“By the way, I love your dress, darling,” my mother says at that moment and I snort loudly, totally unbefitting a Princess.