In Search of Christmas Spirit: Elf Queen of Kiirajanna
A Holiday Short Story by Stephen H. King (TOSK)
Published by Dragon Tale Publishing,
Copyright 2016 Stephen H. King
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“Good morning, Dad,” I casually greeted His Royal Majesty, the King of Kiirajanna, then popped another piece of fruit into my mouth. I smiled as he sat down beside me. Yule season was upon us. On Earth, it was a strange time when merchants made lots of money while some people worked less than usual, and some more than usual, depending on their jobs. In Kiirajanna it was a full stop; as the elves waited for the lunar calendar to come back in line with the solar one, everyone went home and spent quality time with their families. That was the reason for the quiet: only a small skeleton crew ran the castle. Even Sephaline, my cousin, who normally stuck by my side like a hound dog to a hunter, was away at her father’s little village a half-day’s ride from Cysegredig.
“Are you enjoying Yule?”
I playfully looked at where I no longer wore a watch. “Not terribly much so far, but give it a couple more hours to get well enough into the first day.”
“Why did you look at your wrist?”
“Nothing, really, Dad. On Earth we wear little mechanical bands on our wrists so that we will always know what time it is. Didn’t you see that when you were there with Momma?”
“I never noticed, as captivated as I was with her radiance.”
“Thank you. And speaking of your mother, would you prefer to remain here in the castle over Yule? I am fairly certain that we can find a priest or two who has not returned home for the season, who can provide you with important lessons on history and culture. Or….”
“Or what? What are you thinking, Dad?”
“Or I was thinking to return to Mississippi to spend part of the season with your mother.”
My squeal probably roused the whole castle, but I didn’t care. I’d been hoping this might be possible, and was planning to ask later on in the day. I couldn’t wait to see Momma again, so I pushed my plate away and stood up.
“Hold on, my dear daughter. While I am certain that they are undoubtedly awake, thanks to your alarm chime just now, we still need to wait on the rest of our party to pack and prepare to make the journey.”
“The rest of our party?” I couldn’t help but be nervous at the way he’d said it. “Who—who will that be?”
“Us,” a grumpy-sounding male voice growled behind me. I recognized the voice immediately, but I still turned to confirm.
Dad saw our mutual glares and chortled. “Queen Talaith believes that her children are too pampered here in the castle, and we both hope that the four of you spending time together might quench the fires of your collective disdain. We will all be traveling to spend the days with your mother, together, and I even have a special side trip planned as well. And you will enjoy it.”
“I am not inclined to grant you that option, my dearest daughter, light of my eyes, fuel of my heart.”
“Well, bless….” I bit my standard retort off half-way. After an intense six months in Kiirajanna, everybody close to me already knew that my good Southern helping of heart-blessing wasn’t really intended to bless anybody’s heart in a good way. Besides, I never, ever, used it on Dad.
“You said children,” I continued, pointing out his use of the plural.
“I did. Seren and Meriel will join us as well for all of your heart-blessing fun.”
The girls took that as their cue to enter, the queen’s eldest daughter radiant in spite of the early hour. Her hair was coiffed with a grace and agility that is entirely unfair to us mere mortal women, and beneath it her long green gown shimmered with tiny gems. Her younger sister, meanwhile, looked like she’d jumped out of bed, messed her hair up on purpose, and tossed on shorts and a t-shirt to come down to a party she really didn’t want to join.
Both girls looked like they’d just eaten a lemon, bless their hearts.
“I take it you’re not looking forward to sharing the Yuletide cheer with us Earthlings?” I asked.
“I would be perfectly happy to share the Yuletide cheer right here in the castle, rather than some desolate backwoods village in your home world,” Meriel, the one I called Drizella because of her similarity to the Disney stepsister, snapped. “Sorry, Your Majesty,” she added quickly, if not completely sincerely, when Dad raised an eyebrow over the comment.
I slowly dragged in a deep breath in order to keep my own reply from following in kind. After the mess I’d made of Ganolog, I needed to prove that I could behave like a princess. Blowing the air out and forcing a smile onto my face, I asked Dad in as sweet a voice as I could muster, “The companionship arrangements aren’t, by any chance, negotiable, are they, my dearest father?”
The raised eyebrow became an amused expression. “You would seek to negotiate with the ruling pair of Kiirajanna?”
“Well, I would like to think that some things might be—no, huh?” I didn’t bother finishing my statement; the vigorous shaking of the king’s head was answer enough. “Well, bless y’all’s little coal-black hearts, y’all get to visit my magnolia-rich sweet ole’ down home Mississippi.”
I could tell by their disgusted expressions that I’d hit just the right tone of sickly-sweet. Tromping up the stairs to pack, I managed a smile meant only for myself, while making a silent vow that I’d find a way to make Drizella wish she hadn’t said my home was backwoods or desolate.
Later that morning, we stepped through the portal one at a time. Keion led the way, of course, though his normal bravado was trumped by a resigned displeasure. He was followed by my father, and then me, with the two girls bringing up the rear. Together we climbed the long tunnel from the lowest point underneath the pyramid at the other end of the teleport.
Dad pulled us to a stop before a pair of metal doors.
“There is—noise. I was not expecting to hear noise on the other side,” he said quietly in elf.
I pressed my hand against Draignerthol to scan the other side, hoping to get a clue what we were in store for. Dad was right; when we’d come through the portal underneath the pyramid in Memphis our first time, it had been deserted. I could hear the noise on the other side of the door, too, and the raucous crowd sounds concerned me.
What struck me then was the coldness I felt in Draignerthol. The ancient elf relic usually warmed right up when I tried to pull magic through it, but this time it lay silent, dead against my chest. The whole world around me, in fact, felt as flat as the pendant did. I couldn’t sense anything—no magic at all.
I noticed Dad watching me with a raised eyebrow. My quizzical expression earned me a soft snort.
“Earth. No magic, remember?” he whispered.
“Oh. Right. No magic. Duh.” I did remember, belatedly, and felt my face burning red as a result. I’d grown up entirely without magic, not even knowing that such powers exist—because they don’t, on Earth. However, in my short time on Kiirajanna I’d gotten used to the sensation of power running through and flowing all about me, tickling my skin ever so softly when I wasn’t paying attention, and occasionally filling the edges of my eyesight with a soft blue glow. It was weird, a wrapped-in-a-cold-blanket kind of weird, stepping away from that to abruptly return to Earth.
“It’s a shopping area,” Keion whispered, rejoining us with a bare whisper of movement. I jumped; in the interchange with Dad I hadn’t even noticed the prince step out to investigate.
“A nice shopping area,” he added. “Your Majesty, do we have any of the Earth money available to us?”
“Not at the moment, Keion. We will later. And I have a plan to take you to one of the grandest shopping areas on Earth, so for now let us—“
The door suddenly flew open and a flashlight illuminated our faces. A large dark shape filled the door.
“This is a restricted area, folks,” the voice behind the flashlight rumbled. “Can I help you find something?”
“Ah, yes. We had become quite lost, my good man, but now I believe that we owe significant thanks to you for your timely intervention. Even now, we know where we are once again and so we shall continue with our business.”
The light centered on Dad’s face. Cringing at the overly-formal English he’d used, I stepped in to help.
“Sorry, officer. Cousins are here for the holidays. From Germany. They’re a little slow, and got sidetracked—you know how it is. But thank you so much for helping us find the door!” I stepped up and gave him the full-face elf smile I’d picked up in Kiirajanna.
“The alarm says you already found the door, Miss.” He eyed the royal kids for a moment. “Wie gehts?”
After an uncomfortable few moments of silence, I faked an embarrassed-sounding titter and used one finger to draw a circle around my ear. “Slow, remember? So sorry to bother you, officer. Can we go now? My Momma is waiting, and we have so much Christmas shopping left to do.”
He glared at me for another long moment, and then used his flashlight to trace all around my outline. Finally he nodded and stepped out of the way. “Have a nice day,” he said, his tone at war with his words.
“Does that finger gesture mean what I suspect it means?” Meriel asked in elf as we walked quickly toward the middle of the store.
“I’ll tell you later,” I snipped back in elf before switching to English. “Keion, I see why you said this is a nice shopping area.”
We were in a sportsman’s paradise. We walked through a fake forest crowded with sales racks of fishing gear. As we neared the middle, where a glass elevator rose from the floor to somewhere way above, we were greeted by a sea of camouflage clothing and orange hats.
“None of this was here last time. It was just a basketball court,” I said in elf.
“Well, I am not certain what that ball with baskets is about, but this has to be quite an improvement over that,” Keion said. He was beaming, his head swiveling this way and that in a foolish attempt to take in everything.
“Hunting, right? I understand why the human hunters would need to hide from their prey, since you’re nowhere near as stealthy as elves,” Seren continued the conversation quietly in elf. “Why, though, do they mix bright orange in it? Do you have orange bushes here?”
“No, that’s so that they don’t shoot each other,” I answered, and immediately regretted the honesty as all three shared a good laugh at the expense of a well-armed, and, to them, stupid humankind.
“Alyssa!” a welcome voice rang out. Painfully aware of how much I missed Momma, I took off at a run.
Everybody else eventually caught up to where I was wrapped around my mother. Dad gave her a polite peck on the cheek, and everyone else smiled and shook hands briefly, and then she led us out the huge open doors.
“That’s a nice store. I’d like to return if we have the time,” Keion said.
“When did it change?” Dad asked. “When we left it was an old abandoned stadium, and now it is a—Bass Pro headquarters, if the sign can be believed. It seems a short time for a huge transformation.”
“I haven’t been paying much attention, though I heard rumors of its opening all the way down in Mississippi. It’s a cherished new store here in the Mid-south. But look, here’s our ride back home.”
We piled into the sleek black limo, Dad and me sandwiching Momma along the side of the car, and the royal siblings in the straight back seat. They peered around in awe, which I’m sure I didn’t embarrass myself by doing. No, I was peering around in curiosity, is all.
“Nice limo, Momma.”
“Your father’s contact from Wales said there would be too many arriving for a car, and they arranged for this. It is nice, isn’t it?”
“I think the back axle will still be in Memphis while the front is halfway home.”
“So this is what a city on Earth is like,” Seren mused as we hurtled along the interstate. I followed her gaze to both sides of the street, where long-abandoned, burnt-out apartment complexes vied with industrial parks, railroad mazes, and billboards to make for a less-than-spectacular city view.
“Yeah,” I said. She and Meriel had never been away from Kiirajanna, and I regretted that this was their first look at the land where I’d been born.
My father objected. “This is not a large city, no. I have arranged for a trip to a city that is much larger, and I assure you it will be far more interesting. And, I hope, less—industrial.”
I hadn’t ever seen a large city, if by large you mean bigger than Memphis. I’d never really had a reason to, much less a desire. I agreed with Dad in the hope that it might somehow look more attractive than the southern ring of Memphis did.
As the limo glided down the highway toward home, Seren, seated in the middle, proved herself as polite and gracious as ever. She asked lots of questions about the plant life we saw, the names of the towns we passed by, and the nature of the industry that hired such huge trucks in great numbers to haul things down the road. Most questions Momma couldn’t answer, though she would always manage to come up with something to say about the subject. I was impressed at how well Momma held her own in conversation with the Light of Talaith’s Eyes and First Daughter of the Realm. I shouldn’t have been; it was Momma, after all, but I’d never seen her in—well, in such an adult light.
Keion and Meriel, meanwhile, didn’t bother following their sister’s lead. Meriel sat and pouted out the window, smiling occasionally when someone passed us and the person in the other car smiled at her. Sometimes it was a guy in the other car, and they always waved, and a few even blew kisses. The younger princess’s angular features and perfect white skin made her strikingly beautiful, and so I wasn’t surprised that others on the highway would notice.
Keion sat mutely on the right, stared out the window at the terrain passing by, and radiated impatience. I figured it was better to just not even try to talk to him.
When the car exited the highway, Momma smiled at me.
I smiled back and nodded, but it was with mixed emotions. As happy as I was to be back home again, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d seen wondrous things—a unicorn, the northern lights, and a perfectly manicured forest—and I had no idea how that might cloud my view of the old, small, wooden home on its narrow street.
“So, Alyssa, what do you usually do to celebrate the holiday here?” Seren asked. It was a hard question to answer, and I told her so. The last Christmas season, I’d been a senior and had all sorts of school activities to do. But now I wasn’t a senior, and wasn’t even a student at the school. I could go hang out there, but it was probably deserted for the holidays, and besides being boring it would make me look like a loser.
“Your village doesn’t come together to dance in the evenings?”
Dad jumped in. “No, their villages are far different here from the ones you are used to, Princess Seren.”
“Unfriendly?” I could tell she was asking out of ignorance and curiosity, but it still made me twitch a little. Mississippians are not unfriendly. Except for when they are, of course, but that’s not a distinction I wanted to get into with the royal trio. So I kept my mouth shut and let Dad carry it.
“No, at least not intentionally. It might seem that way to you because you are used to different customs with different people, but that is part of why we are here. I’d like to ask each of you to investigate friendliness as it applies here on Earth.”
“Your Majesty,” Seren acquiesced with a slow nod.
“Can we drop the princess and majesty stuff here? We Southerners aren’t big on royalty,” Momma asked.
“But my dear, you are my princess, the majesty of my life,” Dad murmured, bringing a strange sort of girlish giggle out of Momma.
“I hope that is not the sort of friendliness you are asking us to investigate, Your Majesty,” Keion observed drily.
My father gave a happy snort. “I hope, for your sake, that you can someday investigate such a friendliness, Keion.”
Momma looked meaningfully at me, signaling toward the prince with her eyes. “He’s quite a beefcake, isn’t he? And a prince, too. You could do worse.”
Dad let the moment of awkward silence play out before filling the inside of the limousine with a roar of laughter that went on for several minutes. When the fit finally ebbed, he explained to my confused mother, “Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. I rarely have occasion for such a wonderful, invigorating laugh when in performance of my duties. There—there is an inside story there that I shall let our beloved daughter fill you in properly on, in private. Is there not, young Prince Keion?” Prince Charming refused to take the bait, glaring instead at a patch of kudzu along the road. Dad continued a little more gently, “Besides, the queen’s son is quite likely to be chosen my successor, beefcake warrior that he is. As such, tradition dictates that he cannot join with the soon-to-be-queen.”
“Well, that’s kind of a dumb tradition.”
“It is the tradition which brought us together, warmth of my heart. Not that I ever had any designs upon their mother, but it would not have been permitted if I had.”
“Could we change the subject now?” Meriel shocked me by asking at the same time I did. Our eyes met, and it must have been the holiday cheer that caused us to share our first grin.
Our silence carried through the end of the ride, when the driver insisted on removing the packs that he’d brought for us and taking them into the house himself while the siblings pleasantly stood to the side and let him. Looking around the neighborhood and at Momma’s house with guarded expressions, they passed what had to be derogatory whispers around amongst themselves.
“I didn’t realize Ms. Jansen was a Catholic,” I whispered to Momma, watching our neighbor pass on the opposite side of the street and cross herself.
Momma glanced that way and snorted. “She’s not. Your friends and father are so perfectly formed that they’re likely to start sparkling in the sun like those vampires on Twilight, though, so can you blame her?”
I looked over at them, seeing their chiseled alabaster features glisten in the morning light. She was right. I hadn’t seen an elf with so much as a mild suntan or a beer belly my entire time there.
“Where are they going to sleep?” I asked as the practical question occurred to me. There were three bedrooms, and I was pretty sure Momma wasn’t going to give up hers. That meant….
“Keion gets the spare room, of course, and the girls can stay with you.”
“Momma, I don’t want the girls to stay with me.”
She glared at me intensely, and then asked, “Now, where did your manners get off to, Alyssa?”
“Not manners, Momma. There’s no room in there for three girls.” I figured I wasn’t lying much, anyway.
“You’ve had more than three sleep in there before. It’ll be fine.”
“Yeah, when I was ten. And they liked me. I—oh, fine,” I said when I saw the set of Momma’s face, and then, unable to resist the petulant gesture, stomped up to my bedroom.
“You can always sleep outside in the tent,” Momma called after me. I wasn’t sure she knew how inviting that suggestion was to her daughter, who by now was at least half elf in mind as well as body.
“It is quaint,” Meriel observed from the doorway. I glared one last time and then sighed.
“We—we have a tradition, here in the land of my birth,” I explained. “We call it Southern hospitality. Look, I’m sorry about my initial reaction. I’m not used to—you. But it would be my pleasure to share my bedroom with you while you are visiting.”
“You really should sleep down on the couch and let your guests enjoy the comfort of the bed,” Momma said over their shoulders.
“No, no. That will not be necessary. We would not dream of displacing Alyssa,” Seren argued. “Meriel and Alyssa can share the bed, and I will be happy to sleep over on that.” She pointed to the day bed I normally used as a small couch.
“You’re about a foot longer than it is,” Momma argued.
“I will be fine. Thank you, though, for your concern. We will all be fine.”
“But I was just joking earlier. It would be much more hospitable for Alyssa to give up her room and sleep on the couch.”
“It’s perfectly comfortable,” I added as I gathered my things.
“No,” Dad argued from the hall. “It is appropriate that the three girls sleep together.”
Momma and I both looked our queries at him, and in response he shrugged and said, “Keion.”
I wasn’t sure whether to be more embarrassed at his implication or at Momma’s immediate and, I thought, overacted understanding of it. She winked at the three of us and gently closed the door.
“I am not certain precisely what is involved in this Southern hospitality bit, but I do hope it involves being nicer to me,” Meriel said while examining the closet space available.
“What? I have been nothing but nice to you!”
“You have been rude since the day we met. Hasn’t she, Sister?”
Seren looked from her to me and back, then shook her head. “You two have been fairly antagonistic toward each other, so I don’t believe that either of you has any moral high ground to stand upon.”
I couldn’t help sputtering for a minute, but then I managed to continue. “I—I—I haven’t been rude to Meriel, though! How have I been rude to you?”
“You didn’t offer your proper respects to a princess of the realm the first time we met, Alyssa. Not to me, nor to my elder sister, which is in its own way an affront to me.” Meriel folded her arms across her chest as though the deal were sealed.
“It was my first day in Kiirajanna! I didn’t know the proper respects to a princess of the realm to show then!”
“That is entirely beside the point.”
Seren intervened with a slight grin on her face. “No, no. Sister, it is actually quite a good point. You don’t expect respects to be shown by a child, and that is effectively what Alyssa was at the time.”
“And why are you taking her side?” Meriel rounded on her sister with a glare, which was met with a disarming smile.
“I am taking our side. This feud has gone on long enough.”
“Supper!” Momma’s voice carried through the house.
We got down to the kitchen in time to see Momma bustling around putting the final touches on one of her grand meat loaf dishes while Dad sat watching, an amused expression on his face, and an elf I didn’t know standing in the corner with his eyes anchored to the floor.
“He tried to help?” I asked Dad, indicating the elf in the corner with my eyes.
“Ask your mother,” he offered.
“As much as I appreciate your father’s crown status, I could’ve told them before they sent the poor guy that I don’t need any help in here,” Momma said. “He sure doesn’t have to stand in the corner like that.”
“Oh, but my beloved, he does. It is—complicated.”
“Can he at least make himself useful by setting the table?”
“He’s here to follow your instructions, not mine.”
She nodded. Without sacrificing a move over the food, she managed to gesture with her elbows, her lips, and her chin. “Get seven plates from there, and seven napkins from there, and seven knives, forks, and spoons from over there. We’ll need water glasses and wine glasses as well. Alyssa, show him how to place everything properly, and then be a dear and get the ketchup, the hot sauce, and the pepper sauce for the table.”
“You’re making greens?” I asked, excited.
“Of course. You’re home, right?”
“I have so missed Momma’s greens,” I explained to the girls as I whirled in excitement. Momma was right; the elf had absolutely no idea how to set a place properly. I showed him, and he got to work.
“Who’s the seventh, Momma?”
“What do you mean?”
“You said seven. There’s only six of us.”
Momma actually stopped what she was doing at that and gave me a full-on glare. “Girl, did you forget how to count, or did you forget your manners? One, two, three, four, five, six, seven,” she counted everyone out, including the servant whose position I’d gotten used to not counting. “Seven. We may not know that man, but I’ll be darned if he’ll go hungry in my house.”
“So what is your name, since we’re going to be dining together?” I asked.
“Callum, Princess.” He gave me a careful smile. “I am sorry for the disruption my presence has caused His Majesty and your household. I was sent by the crown—“
“To serve us. Yes, I figured that. But this is Mississippi, not Kiirajanna or even Wales. Please do as my momma has asked and shift your serving to just helping out, and drop the titles while you’re in her house.”
“Yes, Pr—ma’am—um, Lady Alyssa.”
Dinner—supper, rather—went well. I’d gotten used to all the frippery around the castle, which included calling supper “dinner,” but it didn’t take long to relax back into Momma’s world. Keion and Seren both asked her to send the recipe for the collard greens to the castle cooks, and I managed to keep my mouth shut and not ask whether collard greens were even available in Kiirajanna. Dad was relaxed in a way I don’t recall ever seeing him relax, and that was nice.
Once everyone was done, I started picking up after, just like I’d been taught. Callum leaped up immediately to help, bless his heart. Seren joined me, and after a glare or two from their sister, so did Meriel and even Keion.
It started to feel downright homey. At least, it did till Keion started showing off his skill at tossing the carving knife from hand to hand; then, it was scary.
Finally the table was cleaned and the dishes put away. Momma asked me to get the cards.
“Is this the Southern hospitality time of which your mother spoke?” Keion asked.
“No, this is the butt-whoopin’ time of which we haven’t spoken yet,” I replied, tossing him a smirk to remove any sting.
I could tell I’d missed when all three looked confused. Seren asked, “Does this butt-whoopin’ have anything to do with heart-blessing?”
“No, dear,” Momma jumped in to rescue me. “Rummy is one of Alyssa’s favorite sports, and she is just a little bit competitive in most things. I trust you’ve already seen that aspect of her personality.”
“Ya think?” Meriel asked in a perfect imitation of my sarcasm.
I wanted to get mad. I tried to get mad. Heck, I told myself to get mad. I couldn’t, though, not with Momma and Dad both laughing at it. I had to admit, it was perfect.
So, I also have to admit, was Momma’s suggestion. Rummy is too simple of a game usually; she and I had played pinochle when we’d had time for cards. But the queen’s kids had never held a card in their lives, and so rummy was the perfect game to bring them up to speed quickly. Thanks to the simplicity of the rules, we were able to roll through quite a few rounds while conversing.
Momma’s just brilliant that way.
We went to bed tired, but strangely happy. With the lights out I couldn’t see Meriel’s face, couldn’t tell whether it held its usual sneer. Instead, as she lay there calmly beside me, I could almost imagine her a sister.
And then she snored.
The next day we were up early for another drive down the highway, this time to the airport. Keion voiced a desire to stop by the store in the pyramid, but after Momma explained that the Memphis airport is all the way on the south end of town, far away from his little dream store, he shrugged and sat quietly.
The flight went well. The crown had sprung for first class tickets, so the plush seats and prompt service were nice, but a look back into the tiny seats of the main cabin got me thinking. The queen’s kids were obviously spoiled, and spoiled completely rotten at that. To them, the pampering in the first class cabin was a natural result of their station on the planet. Momma, meanwhile, and Dad, too, to a lesser extent, looked uncomfortable with it. Momma I could see; she’d never been pampered her entire life, as far as I knew. Dad’s discomfort was refreshing, though. I suspected his humility was a major factor in his towering popularity among the people. He displayed that humility nearly every day in small ways, and those small things added up, I think, to make a big deal.
Another limo met us at the gate in New York, and then the craziness started. I’d never in my life seen that many people gathered all together in one spot. I’d seen it on TV, when the big ball drops at midnight on New Year’s Eve, but it turns out that’s nothing at all like having everybody actually up and in your face. Just driving in the city is scary; it’s like you’re in a raging river of taxi cabs, and you have to go their direction or else.
It made me feel a little better that the queen’s kids looked just as terrified as I felt. Obviously they weren’t used to the concentrated population either, as I could easily tell by the head-swiveling going on in the back seat.
The limo let us out at a street corner, the driver whispering something to Dad about how to connect later on while the rest of us milled around, eyes darting to one side and then the other.
“I can’t believe how many people there are,” Seren whispered.
“The buildings—how are they constructed to be able to rise so tall?” Meriel asked.
I kept my mouth shut. I had plenty of questions, but I had no idea which of them would sound as dumb as Meriel’s.
Dad led us out on a brief walk onto the wide sidewalks of the next block over, where we stood for a minute and gaped up at the huge, ad-filled screens that seemed to soar miles above our heads.
“So this is a fairly famous location in the city—“ Dad started, but I was so excited to recognize it that I interrupted him.
“It’s Times Square!”
“You have heard of it, my daughter?”
“I’ve seen it! Every New Year’s Eve we watch the ball drop from this very spot, don’t we, Momma?”
“Is she correct, Your Ma—Cadfael?” Keion caught himself and switched to Dad’s name before the full title came out, at least. He was the most formal of the bunch, probably because he’s so interested in becoming king, himself, some day.
“Yurmahcadfael agrees,” Dad teased with a grin and a nod.
Keion grunted at the gentle joke at his expense, and then said, “But it’s not a square.”
“How can you call it Times Square if it is not a square?”
“I do not—Alyssa?” Dad actually started to admit that he didn’t know something, but shunted the question my way.
I shrugged. “This isn’t the kind of thing they teach in American history class.”
“Ah. What do they teach in American history class?”
I found myself at a loss. I remember taking the class, of course. Everybody had to take it. I remember Sarah, my best friend, sat next to me. But what we learned, I couldn’t recall.
“Where’s Sarah been?” I felt kind of weird not having noticed her absence. She and I had written letters back and forth from Kiirajanna, couriered by the elf royal network, and none of them mentioned any sort of holiday thing.
“She should be back in a couple of days,” Mom answered. “They’re celebrating her first semester at State with a family holiday get-together in Florida. You just now noticed?”
I shrugged and subtly indicated my current companions.
“So you didn’t answer your father’s question.”
“I don’t remember much of that class. The Mayflower brought British settlers, and there was a Revolutionary War in which they became Americans, and then there was the Civil War because, you know, there were two completely different sets of cultures. And slaves, which was bad. But then I remember something about the First World War, which led to the Great Depression, which led to the Second World War. And Cuba had missiles sometime in there, too. Or no, they didn’t—they wanted them. Oh, I can’t remember.”
“Ah. I see,” Dad said, nodding as though he really did understand some cosmic mystery. “And, so, what can you tell your mother about the first few epochs of the history of Kiirajanna? Remember, she has never heard this story.”
I had a lot I could say about that. Elf history was fascinating, with massive wars interspersed in decades of peace, and complex alliances formed between this clan and that one that lasted a year, sometimes, or sometimes a century. We walked as I talked, the queen’s kids leading our small group through the tide of humanity as it pressed against us in all directions.
The shopping was incredible, but the camaraderie was better. Seren and Keion wanted to go into just about every store, and I started wandering how many weeks it would take us to get around the city at the rate we were going. Dad was just along for the ride, as he made clear by switching between joking about the seemingly endless task of going into every store and bantering with me about the tale I was telling. Momma, who’d never been much for shopping, followed behind and listened in rapt silence.
Meriel was the one who surprised me. Instead of competing with her siblings for who could shop the best, she hung back with Momma and me and helped me tell the story. If that weren’t surprising enough, she actually helped me eagerly, energetically, like we were two sisters sharing the effort of telling a great saga.
We reached the end of the Third Epoch together, just in time. As we finished, Seren and Keion turned in to another store. I rounded the corner after them to find myself as close to heaven as I could possibly come on Earth: the M&M World. I’ve never, not in my wildest dreams, imagined such a cavernous building devoted entirely to my favorite candy. Even those wildest dreams couldn’t come close. They had chocolate in every color and type, and all sorts of activities also.
“Wow,” Momma said.
“No kidding,” Dad agreed.
“This place is amazing, right?” I asked, still gazing around in wonder.
“Oh. Yes, it is nice, but after how little you knew of the history of the land where you grew up, you and Meriel laid out a wonderful history of your new realm,” Dad said. “You work together nicely when you are not trying to be so angry with each other.”
Meriel snorted loudly from the wall of chocolates she was examining. I just shrugged.
“How long do we have in this wonderland, Dad?” I asked as we stepped out of the chocolate paradise an hour or so later.
“Today and tomorrow. We will spend tonight in a hotel that is, I believe, quite famous here on Earth. The Waldorf, it is called. But for now, we are a little tardy in following the suggested tour route the staff here prepared for us, so we should be on our way.”
We took off down 50th Street at a rapid clip. I was impressed by how well Momma kept up with the long-legged elves who were used to walking nearly everywhere.
“Why aren’t they square?” Meriel asked me as we neared the next cross street one very long block later.
“Why aren’t what square?” I was confused. All the buildings looked square to me.
“The arrangement of streets. Keion already pointed out that Times Square is not square. But now these blocks of buildings are much longer this direction than the other way. Is that an Earth custom?”
“I don’t know,” I answered truthfully, ignoring the initial urge to respond sarcastically. “Downtown in my home town, the blocks are square. Maybe it’s a Yankee thing.”
“Yankee?” Seren probed, and so I spent most of the next block explaining what I knew of the economic and social divide in the nation according to a Southerner. It felt awkward, describing what I’d once felt strongly. The problem was that I had been away from it for long enough that it didn’t make much sense to me any longer.
“So, what you are suggesting is that elf clans are not the only groups who like to divide ourselves based on aspects of geography,” Dad suggested gently, drawing a thankful nod from me and a few weird glances from passers-by.
“We should switch to elf,” I said, doing so myself for the suggestion.
“I do not wish to leave your mother out of our conversation,” Dad argued, returning to English.
“It’s fine,” Momma tried to smooth it over, but Dad shook his head forcefully with the elf gesture, left hand slicing out and downward with palm down, indicating the matter closed.
“It is not. We shall all speak the language that all of us understand.”
“Oh, look,” Seren interjected. We all dropped the language argument to gasp in wonderment as one. We were so busy talking that we’d come around the corner without noticing the massive Christmas tree and ice skating rink that now filled our vision.
“So beautiful,” Meriel whispered.
The sun had disappeared quickly behind the buildings that surrounded us. The darkness that would otherwise have enveloped the block, though, was shattered by thousands upon thousands of lights twinkling everywhere. To each side smaller trees interspersed with angelic statues were lit up entirely in white, while the centerpiece itself soared several dozen feet in the air and glimmered in a multicolor beauty. All about us people strode, having apparently given up the rush we’d seen on the streets outside. They were laughing, talking, grinning. Even the music was happy; I recognized “Good King Wenceslas” in a grand orchestral arrangement coming over the loudspeakers.
I suddenly realized that not only was the sensation of connectedness with the Earth missing, but I was also missing what I called my spidey-senses. On Kiirajanna I was able to sense someone come close to me, even from behind. Here, though, people were able to brush right by my shoulder without my noticing till the contact happened. It made me feel naked, in a way.
“Let us hurry,” Dad urged. He pushed us onward, around the rink and tree and through the grand golden doors of the monolithic central building itself.
“Sunset tour, please,” he announced once he’d made his way to the desk, producing six colorful slips of card stock from a pocket. We were shown to an elevator, then, and spent quite a lot of time inside a crowded car that was obviously hurtling upward.
“How high are we going?” Momma asked. She wasn’t fond of heights.
“Seventieth floor, dearie,” an elderly lady behind answered. “Such a lovely family. You must be enjoying the holidays.”
“We just got here. It’s lovely,” I said.
“You’re from the South, aren’t you? Have you ever seen snow before?” the man beside her asked.
“I am, yes. From there. I’ve moved, though, and we do have snow now.”
“Oh? Where is that?”
“I—um—Alaska,” I lied. I was pretty certain I couldn’t tell these people that I’d been in the land of the elves.
“Alaska! How wonderful! We were up there on a cruise not long—six, maybe seven years?—ago. Well, I’ll let you get to the tour. You have a merry Christmas,” he said as the elevator stopped and the doors slid open.
It was high. Very, very high. I heard Momma’s deep gasp and reached out for her hand, only to be beaten to it by Dad. Ah, well. I went off with the queen’s kids to look out through the thick glass panes at the city that stretched out as far as I could see.
“What is that wooded area out there? It stands starkly in contrast with the buildings we see,” Keion asked.
The old man from the elevator answered, coming up close beside us to be heard over the wind. “That’s Central Park you see. It’s famous—the most-visited urban park on this continent, in fact. Eight hundred forty-three acres, it is, with all sorts of wonderful paths. You haven’t been there, I take it, young man?”
“No, we have not, though my soul hungers for it,” Keion said. I understood; after so long being a part of the landscape, ourselves, standing seventy stories above a forest of metal, rock, and glass seemed to cut us off from our very beings.
“Well, you might not wish to visit till tomorrow. You’re a scrappy sort, I can tell, but at night there’s meaner things that come out in the park.”
“Oh, you don’t go filling their heads with nonsense, Johnny,” the woman argued. “It’s been cleaned up a lot.”
“I still wouldn’t risk it,” he said, shaking his head.
“Thank you, Sir. We shall wait till tomorrow to venture forth.”
“’Venture forth,’ huh? You from Alaska, too?” The old man looked from me to Keion, eyes squinting in the diminishing light of the sunset.
“We live together,” Keion said, nodding. I blushed at the connotation that he didn’t catch.
“Huh. I see. Not married, I take it?”
“No, of course not.”
The old man stomped away muttering something about “kids these days” to his wife, who just nodded sagely.
“What did I say?”
“Nothing, Keion. Don’t worry about it.” I shook my head and chuckled softly.
To the other side we saw more buildings, skyscrapers all, filling the horizon. One in particular looked familiar, standing above the rest with a peculiarly-shaped arched top, and so I told them all I knew of the Empire State Building. It wasn’t much, but I didn’t figure that the old man was likely to step over toward us again anytime soon.
The Statue of Liberty, I knew a little more about, Not enough, it turned out, as the kids were quick to ask who France was and why they’d wanted to give us a statue that we then used as a station to in-process immigrants. I had no idea about all of that; my knowledge was limited to the basics, like the fact that there was a tour that let you climb all the way to the top of the torch.
The tour guide wasn’t much help. He stalked over in his tidy uniform like a lion with Meriel as his prey. She energized that same royal radiance that she’d used on me the first time we met, though, and it caused him to turn on a dime and find someone else to assist.
It got cold, quickly. We’d been outfitted with really nice down jackets, thanks again to Dad’s “connections,” but they only did so much against the wind whipping about way up high. Their dark grey color against the cold, shimmering air did wonders for Keion’s eyes, though. I’m just saying.
Safely down on the street again, I turned and looked back up at the tower we’d summited. It’s a rush, looking back upward to such a precarious-seeming height. And then, a freight train hit me.
Okay, so it was not a freight train. It was just a guy, but he looked about as large as one as he stood looming over where I’d fallen. I smiled; I was okay, after all. I reached up for the help to my feet that I figured would be coming.
“Watch where you’re goin’,” he barked at me in what can only be described as an accent of ugliness, and turned away to continue on his way.
“I believe you owe the lady an apology,” Keion said as he stepped in front of my accidental assailant.
“For what? She ran into me. Now, get outta my way, punk.”
Dad helped me to my feet, and we both stood behind Mister Big and Burly as he faced off against the prince. Keion is tall – not as tall as my father, mind you, but he’s a few inches over six feet from top to bottom. The guy who’d knocked me over had a foot, easily, on him, and probably a hundred pounds, too. He looked like an upscaled version of my high school football team’s All-American linebacker.
I figured it was maybe even odds, at least if the guy was as quick as he was large. Otherwise, the prince pretty well had him.
“Do you know who I am?” Keion started, and Dad shook his head vigorously to forestall an embarrassing admission.
“Everything okay here?”
I breathed a little easier as two cops strode into the ring that had opened in the crowd around the two men. They looked ready for business, too, with shirts pressed outward by bulletproof vests and shiny “N.Y.P.D.” badges perched on their chests.
“Yeah, Mikey, this little punk’s girlfriend shoved into me and now he wants to start a fight. I seen him reach for that sticker he’s got on his belt, too. Probably needs a night with you’se to cool his punk head off. Can’t have hotheads like him runnin’ loose in our city, right?”
“We’ll take care of this, Al,” the one named Mikey said. “Get on about your business. Merry Christmas, eh?”
“Merry Christmas to you, too. Not to you, punk, or your little girlfriend either,” the massive man grumbled as he lumbered away.
“Officer, this was—“ Keion started to explain himself, relaxing out of the fighting stance he’d held.
“Shut up, and hand over that knife. Handle first.”
“It is not even really a knife, my good man. I certainly was not reaching to use it, as I have no need for such a thing in hand-to-hand combat.”
“Just hand it over.”
“It is a family heirloom.”
“Heirloom, schmeirloom. You hand over that knife or we’re putting you down, in front of all these nice people, too. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”
Keion removed his knife and handed it over, doing the best “contrite” I imagine he knows – which isn’t very good. It didn’t help that the knife itself looks like Satan’s dagger, with curvy edges and shiny elf inscriptions. The officers’ eyes got huge when they saw it.
“All right, kiddo, we’re gonna have to take you in. Come with us easy, and there won’t be anybody hurt.”
“In? In where?”
“Hah, you playin’ stupid, kid? Doin’ a fine job, I must say. We’ve got to take you to the big house now. The slammer. Jail, my friend. The judge will figure out what to do with you in the morning.”
Keion’s face grew dark, his body tensing. “I do not go to jail. I am a prince.”
“Yeah, yeah. You’re a prince. He’s a prince. She’s a princess. Everybody here’s special, buddy. But you’re a prince with an illegal blade, so you’re the one who’s going to jail.”
“Keion,” Dad warned, then gestured. I could read the gestures, though I doubt any of the non-elves could. The prince got it, though, and so he relaxed.
“Officers, he really is of an important lineage. Perhaps we could come to another arrangement?” Dad asked, a large dose of measured politeness in his voice.
“Oh. Well, if you put it that way. You mean, like, a small bribe?”
“I would not dream of insulting your integrity in such a manner, my good man.”
“Yeah, well, that’s good, ‘cause I don’t know how it is where you’re from, but bribery’s illegal here in the Big Apple. Now, if there’s nothing else from you, we’ll take yon prince here to the station house. You can probably pick him up in the morning, unless he pisses the judge off.”
“Keion, go safely. We will take care of it from our end.”
“Okay,” Keion growled. “Lead on, ddibwys.”
I cringed, but nothing came of Keion calling the officers peons in his native language. Instead, the officers put handcuffs on him a little roughly, shrugged, and led him toward the street, all eyes following.
“That’s it? You’re going to let them take my brother away?” Meriel asked, barely holding her voice below a shriek.
“I have a plan. Follow me.” My father took off with his long, powerful strides leaving us behind at first.
We caught up well before we arrived at the hotel. A doorman held the door open, greeting us smartly. We climbed a set of stairs and entered a grand entryway that was luxuriously decorated in wood panels, white ceilings, and mirrored columns. None of us saw much, though, since we were all fuming over Keion’s fate.
“Your Majesty,” a man in a suit said in elf and handed Dad an envelope. The king accepted the pack and then whispered to the elf, who nodded sharply and strode away. Dad led us wordlessly to the elevators and up to a hallway somewhere in the middle of the hotel.
“Make sure your bags are right, and wash your faces if you wish. Then come back here to my room,” he said, pointing to a door and then distributing the other keys. The queen’s daughters got one room, and I got a room all to myself. It would’ve been a joyous moment if I wasn’t so worried about Keion.
I did as he’d asked, checking to make sure the bag on the bed was, in fact, mine, and then washing my face. I made a mental note to come back later, once Keion was safe and sound, to allow myself to enjoy the luxury of the fine bath cloth with the silky soap, but this time I blotted my face dry and hurried back to the king’s room quickly.
Momma let me in, a worried expression on her face. Dad stood at the far end of the room by the windows, speaking elf rapidly into a cell phone that the man in the suit had obviously brought up for him. He seemed agitated for just a minute, and then relaxed back to the calm man I had come to know.
“Okay. Thank you,” he finally said in elf and hung up.
“Your Majesty,” the suited elf started, but Dad interrupted him with a hand and turned to Momma and me and the other two behind.
“All shall be well,” he announced. “The prince will be met at the jail site by royal counsel, who will ensure that his stay is brief and comfortable.”
“Your Majesty, your reservations downstairs at the Bull and Bear are in less than an hour, and you all still have yet to dress for the occasion. I can explain to the staff that you will only have five instead of six in your party, but—“
“There is no need,” Dad said over all of our objections. “I was led to believe that we will have six.”
Six, we had, once a sullen Keion was led to our round table to join us. A waiter followed him holding out a wool dress coat like Dad was wearing, but when confronted with it Keion let loose a growl that made the poor man shrink back and leave. He took his seat at the table, his jeans and leather jacket over a tight gray t-shirt looking awfully nice on him, if a little out of place in the restaurant. He didn’t seem to care as he cast a glare around the table at each of us in turn.
“Well, Keion,” Dad said, apparently immune to the heat in the prince’s expression, “so, you are, I believe, the first member of our group to have the luck to experience the New York City jail system. Perhaps once you have calmed down you can regale us with the tale of your exploits?”
“Exploits,” Keion mouthed, his lips turned up as though the word tasted bad. His voice was heated as he continued, “Did you know that it is illegal in New York City to carry a knife that is more than four inches long?”
“I did not—calm down, young prince, or you will have us all thrown out of here. No, no one in my staff warned me of that, or I should have warned you in turn.”
Keion relaxed slightly, and the waiter who’d been about to pour him a glass of wine when Keion had flinched allowed himself to venture closer again. If the waiter heard Keion’s quiet “Twll din” he ignored it, but those of us at the table who spoke elf caught the curse.
“Keion, the waiter did nothing to wrong you and did not deserve that,” his elder sister corrected.
He shrugged, and I had to agree that what he’d said wasn’t all that bad. The word means jerk, only a little bit stronger, meaner. It refers to a part of the body that isn’t very polite, is all.
“Apparently I have diplomatic immunity,” the prince growled after draining the glass, and then horrifying the server by refilling it himself. “I shall receive my blade back in my bag upon arrival in Memphis, they say.”
“Yes, that is a good thing, is it not?” Dad asked, trying to cheer the conversation up.
Keion just sighed, but Momma picked up the conversation. “How does he have diplomatic immunity? The el—your people—aren’t a nation. You don’t have an embassy, do you?”
“No, my beloved, our people do not hold a recognized nation-state status here, but I happen to know those who do. While a ‘bribe’ on the street would have gotten me into as much, if not more, trouble than yon prince there with his mighty blade, a small deposit into the national coffers of a friend was quite successful in drawing forth the desired release.”
“Well, thank you,” Keion muttered, his eyes still dark.
“So what was it like, being in a New York City jail?” Seren asked. I was glad she had; she was probably the only one besides my father at the table Keion respected enough to answer.
“It was like being caged. I have never before felt so—so limited, so cut off. So powerless,” he said. As he spoke the dark veil fell away from his eyes and I was able to see the depth of the fear he’d felt. The fear and anger warred for control, and both were fielding stronger vibes than I’d ever seen him display. To be honest, I couldn’t imagine being caged, myself, not even for the short while he’d managed. I suspect that’s one of my worst fears. I’d honestly rather try to kiss a wyvern on the face than be caged for any length of time.
Keion finally calmed down from his enraged state. He caught up quickly with the massive stack of seafood that was our appetizer and joined us for the incredible steak dinners, and the remainder of the evening was grand.
“So how did you like your room last night?” Momma asked on the flight back home.
I shrugged. “I kinda missed Seph and Booboo not waking me up in the morning.”
“Booboo is the wolverine, right? How does a wolverine wake you up in the morning?”
“Licks. The little beast has learned to catch my earlobe with his tongue. I growl at him, and he smiles at me, and the day can then begin.” I sighed. I really did miss them.
“A wolverine smiles? I thought they were little creatures of death, according to your letters.”
“They are, and he can be, but no more so than a house cat. He’s a big ball of friendliness when he knows you’re on his side.”
“Amazing. I would love to meet this Sephaline and Booboo some day, if you can convince him that I am also on his side.”
“The pair have been good companions for Alyssa on her journeys,” Dad chipped in.
Keion surprised me by nodding, also. “She is a capable and competent ranger.” That, coming from him, felt like a Congressional Medal of Honor.
“We really should endeavor to be nicer to her,” Meriel shocked me by adding. When I spun around and gaped in surprise, she shrugged and asked, “What? When she was brought to the castle—it was a few weeks before you arrived, because she needed to become familiarized with castle ways—she—she smelled. And worse, she carried an assumed equality to us about her.”
“She is equal to you,” I argued.
“Sort of, technically, yes, and now that she has proven herself, I would say it goes beyond a mere technicality. Only so far, of course; we are still the queen’s beloved children and light of the castle, and until you take the crown, she is but the first cousin to the crown princess. Still, at first, from the very first day, she greeted us as equals, and that earned our rebuke.”
“Technically? I call garbage on that. She had to prove herself to you, and she’s done so every day I’ve been around her, while you were born into your seat. You know, you’d be a really nice person if you weren’t so stuck up sometimes, you know that?”
“Um….” I decided not to answer the question literally. “It’s just a phrase that we use sometimes, referring to royals who look down at the non-royals.”
“Well, then, stuck up seems a good thing to be in public.”
“Let us hold off on this discussion until we return safely home,” Dad interjected, and I looked around to see that a few other first class passengers were obviously paying close attention.
After a while, once the listening ears had turned away again, Momma leaned across the aisle and asked me quietly, “So, no reaction to spending the night in one of the most lavish hotel rooms in the country?”
Her words struck me as I shook my head silently. No, I really didn’t have a reaction to spending a night in the Waldorf Astoria. A year ago, I would have called every friend I had to brag about where I was laying my head. A year ago, granted, Momma and I would have been sleeping in the same room without any sort of father in my life. Since he’d returned, though, I’d had some rough nights, out on the trail with Sephaline in barely-furnished ranger cabins, but most nights had taught me to be pampered.
Soon I would be queen, with my own staff to pamper me even further. I let that thought settle and swim about for a moment. It wasn’t exactly rags to riches, since we’d never actually been poor, but it was a huge transition still. The key question in it all, of course, was whether I was ready to finish that transition. Was I capable of being a good queen at all?
How long might I have to learn before putting on the crown?
“You’ll do fine,” a soft voice floated in from the most unexpected place. Shocked, I swiveled my head to look into Meriel’s eyes.
“Do you really think so?” I don’t know exactly why I felt the need to open up to my own personal antagonist, but I did right then.
She shrugged. “My mother did, and she didn’t have us to teach her.” She flashed a huge smile. “See? Relax, Alyssa. All will be okay.”
The next morning dawned much too early, with Momma and Dad making sure I knew when that was. Out of habit I tromped downstairs to the living room in my PJs. I’d explained the ritual to the queen’s kids, and apparently Momma had to Dad, because everybody arrived at roughly the same time in roughly the same state of dress. It was weird; I’d never seen Seren in anything but a dress before our trip to Manhattan, and this morning marked the first time I’d seen her in silky pajamas. I was swept through with annoyance briefly over how she could look just as good in morning drab as she did made up for a ball, but given the general mood of the morning it was easy to let the feeling go.
For our second day in New York City, we’d each been given a credit card (and matching not-entirely-genuine identification cards, for the queen’s kids) and sent into the city with orders to buy presents. Just one per person, the instructions went, and though the cards had no practical limits, how much you spent on each one was less important than the thought that went into the gift.
At least, that was the theory. It was a nice theory.
Momma and Dad seemed to comply, giving each other small gifts that clearly brought both of them great joy while they left the rest of us shrugging. Her gift to him was a small silver cup that he pledged to keep for the rest of his days. He gazed at it with tears springing to the corners of his eyes.
“There has to be a story there,” I prompted Momma.
“You going to tell it?”
“Nope,” she said as she leaned in and snuggled underneath Dad’s arm, both looking down at the little cup he turned over and over in his hands.
We argued, gently, over who should go next. I thought the burden should be on me, as the younger host of the party, but everyone else said I should go last, as the only one who hadn’t been through the elf coming-of-age ritual known as the hunhymgais. Technically, as the elf logic went, I was thus the only child in the room. When Momma piled in on top of that, I had to give in.
Seren, being the eldest, started us off. She’d gotten her king a nice stag pendant, in keeping with his side of the royal insignia, while my mother received a matching doe. Because, she explained, Momma gave off a radiance of peace and grace, which brought smiles all around. Her brother received an empty box carved from purple heartwood, to hold all the wonders that the future had in store for him, she intoned. He tried to open it, unsuccessfully, and she just giggled and explained that it was called a puzzle box for that reason—he had to figure out how to open it, first. Meriel and I were still grinning at the prince’s puzzlement as she received a golden rose to signify her beauty already on display, which then made it clear why Seren gave me a crystal rose bud.
It could have been taken as an insult, I think, but I chose not to.
Keion really liked shopping at the sporting goods counters, apparently. Each of us received a dagger with our name engraved into the hilt. As impersonal as it might sound, though, they were chosen well. Dad’s was a commando-style knife, double-edged and all black with the hilt comfortably wrapped in blackened leather. The daggers he gave Momma and his sisters were purely ornamental. Momma’s didn’t even have a real blade on it. It was pretty, though, with an inlaid onyx on the pommel that made it the decorative match for the king’s weapon.
“In honor of the lawfulness and peace of this realm,” he said as he pointed out to Momma that her dagger was pretty but useless. That earned him a snort from me, and Momma’s face froze in the expression she used on me when I said something “silly”—her code word for dumb but a little bit cute. Still, being in jail for even a short period of time still haunted him, apparently.
“I studied your wars,” he reminded me pointedly, his voice remaining gentle. “It is not meant as a naïve expression of the world as it is not, but rather a symbol of my hope for your mother’s peaceful future.”
“It is wonderful, Prince Keion,” she said formally, recovering to brush off his sudden look of concern over my snort.
The daggers Keion got for his sisters seemed to be doing their best to answer the question of how many gems you can put on a single hilt. They, at least, had real blades, but you could tell their makers had no vision of them ever being used in a fight.
Mine was different—slim, simple, flesh-toned, and about six inches of sharpened steel. The sheath had straps. Along one side of the hilt—the side that was intended to lay against my calf—it was engraved “i wasanaethu’r frenhines.”
“To serve the queen,” I read the inscription aloud for Momma’s sake. Her eyebrows shot toward the ceiling.
“Do you believe you’ll need that kind of serving?” she asked.
“No, of course not. Kiirajanna is perfectly safe,” I lied, just a little. I’d thought the trip to Ganolog would be fairly safe, till we’d been attacked.
“Keion,” my father jumped in to steer the conversation away from the difficult part. “Your gifts are wondrous, but I am most curious. Where did you find such beautiful knives in a city where knives are forbidden?”
Keion shrugged dismissively. “All knives weren’t forbidden, just most of them over four inches long.”
“I’m fairly certain this is over four inches long,” I argued, holding up my beautiful new dagger for measurement.
Keion shrugged a second time. “There are always exceptions for those who know how to ask.”
“Well, it is beautiful.” I let it go; there wasn’t anything to be gained by pressuring him.
“Well, since it is now my turn,” Meriel said and dashed upstairs. She returned almost immediately and started passing around the bags she’d brought with her.
Dad opened his and pulled out a well-decorated top hat. Apparently Meriel had found the hat store.
“Do you like it?”
“I love it. Here, I shall try it on,” he said. It fit perfectly, and it looked really good on him even over the black pajamas he wore. I stared. Elves didn’t wear hats, as far as I had ever seen. That was, apparently, why Meriel was beaming over the gift’s reception.
Momma reached in and pulled a pink-bowed behemoth out of her bag. Even though she couldn’t hide the quickly-concealed expression of revulsion from me, she managed to replace it with a grand smile quickly enough that Meriel didn’t catch on. Of all the hats in the world, though, the queen’s younger daughter had managed to find and purchase the one that was least in Momma’s tastes. The hard top was wrapped all around with pink chiffon, festooned by several huge pink bows separated by a single white flower—a zinnia, I think it’s called. The pink wrap continued around the hard bill and then draped down and hung from the downturned ridge like an ugly ponytail.
Seeing it made me wonder what the fashion-challenged younger princess had in store for me. Still, when she turned to check my reaction, I managed a bright smile.
“These hats are such a new fashion statement, don’t you think?”
I nodded mutely, unable to make myself lie more openly about the long history of hats in the United States.
“Seren, this is for you!” she chirped. The hat her sister pulled out was, at least, closer to something I could imagine its recipient might wear. It was a much smaller version of Dad’s new hat, meant to perch at an angle on a lady’s head. The bright blue went well with her eyes, and the white lace stood well-starched. A little white sprig of tiny baby’s breath flowers made it perfect.
“I bet you can’t wait to see what I got for my brother,” she announced.
“You’d win that bet, for certain,” I agreed. Momma shot me a hard look, but I just grinned at her past Meriel’s smile. I’d slid the sarcasm in deftly, I had to admit.
Not deftly enough, I realized when I caught Keion’s glare. He reached into the bag silently and pulled out something that shocked me. He held my eyes as he put the grey wool ivy cap over his long black hair, and suddenly his dark eyes got even darker.
I was glad I was sitting down, or my knees would’ve probably buckled. What Meriel lacked in women’s hat fashion knowledge she more than made up for in men’s hats. Keion looked good.
He looked better than good. He smoldered, even in pajamas.
“Very nice,” Meriel said with a simper. “Alyssa, don’t you think my brother is stunning in his hat?”
The question pulled me out of my stare. “Yes. Um, yes, he’s quite stunning in that hat.”
Dad passed a glare from Prince Charming to me, and then back again, swapping it several times while he apparently tried to figure out whether to accost us over it. Finally he shrugged and let it go.
“So, your turn!” Meriel crowed and dragged me toward the downstairs bathroom. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. The girl’s taste had failed, utterly, with my mother and her sister, but she’d done fairly well with Dad, and her choice for Keion had knocked it out of the park.
She started in on my hair, first, working feverishly with a brush and sprayer to tame the morning crazy out of my normally-unruly mop. I was used to it being short, but six months in Kiirajanna without even Momma’s stylist allowed it to double in length. The few times the queen’s handmaidens had made something pretty out of it, they’d twisted and braided and wrapped for what seemed like hours, and there was no way I would let Meriel get away with that on Christmas morning.
“Nah ah ah ah,” she chided me when I started around to look in the mirror. “Trust me.”
“You’ll forgive me if that’s not the easiest thing in the world for me to do.”
“Fair enough. Our relationship has been strained, but I will beg of you to allow this to be the start of a new term.”
Satisfied with my hair, she pulled something out of a bag behind me and draped it over my head. She tugged once, twice, and then a couple more times, and then stepped back to appraise the result.
“Good. Now you may turn.”
I turned, and I gasped. She’d really worked some magic, figuratively if not literally. The result was beautiful. The hat she’d chosen was a Princess Di style, lavender all along the crown and circular brim with a wide white ring around the edge. It was simple, and it was elegant, and it did, I had to admit, set my own blue eyes to sparkling.
“Very nice.” It was an understatement, but I was too surprised to come up with anything better.
“Yes, I agree. Now, let’s go show my sister and the rest of the family.”
We rounded the corner into the living room, and Momma and Seren both imitated the gasp I’d let out. Dad whistled and applauded his approval.
Keion hungered. I could feel it from across the room.
“It doesn’t quite match my outfit,” I argued.
“Honey, it matches everything else, and that’s what’s most important,” Momma said.
“You have done well, Sister.” Seren nodded slowly.
“It is beautiful,” I agreed. “Thank you so much, Meriel. It makes me feel amazing.”
“And now, it is your turn,” Dad prompted.
“Are you that ready to head back to Kiirajanna and leave me here?” Momma teased, though I heard an edge to her voice that she failed to hide completely.
“No, my love. I am merely ready to put some regular clothes on.”
Everybody laughed while I hauled out my own treasures. Momma and Dad each got half of a divided silver heart-shaped storage box.
“These are lovely, Alyssa. And they’ll fit together once your father comes back here to live with me. And—ooh, this is nice.” She’d noticed that each had a picture in the underside of the top. They were two of the same picture, the one we’d taken together before Dad and I left for Kiirajanna the first time half of a year ago.
“Right, but I got those mostly for you, Momma. I figured you’d let Dad have one while he’s away, but once he’s back it’s all yours. So Dad, here’s what I got for you.”
I watched as Dad pulled the slip cover off of the box, and opened the box itself to find the bottle carefully wedged into the padding. He studied the label.
“You like whiskey, right?”
“I do,” he answered cautiously. He and I both knew he did, and we both knew that we both knew, but it had to be a secret since his whiskey stash was kept in a special room that nobody but the king was allowed into.
“You’re not old enough—“ Momma objected, but I cut her off with a grin.
“Fake IDs, remember?” The IDs Dad had to give us to use with the credit cards had birth dates making us all in our early twenties. “The man at the store told me it’s some of the best ever made. Without, he added, spending a king’s ransom on it, and I didn’t think spending that much would be a good thing.”
“You are correct, I should say. This is lovely, Alyssa. We should try some, yes?”
“Not before breakfast,” Momma said in a scandalized voice.
“Well, then, hurry up and let us have breakfast.”
“First, though, I got something for Seren,” I said, pulling out three gifts and handing a long, flat one over. Seren looked at the wrapping job I’d done, and I was pleased to see her smiling. The paper was a beautiful shade of purple, with black raven’s feathers spread out across it.
“Interesting paper for Christmas wrapping,” Momma said. She was right; it was an interesting choice. I was actually the only one who’d wrapped my gifts, for one thing; everyone else had just handed them over. But I’d been careful to find just the right wrapping paper with just the right silver ribbon, and intersperse small pieces of chocolate through the ribbon.
“The current crown insignia is the stag and the raven,” Dad explained to Momma while Seren carefully broke the paper apart at its seams. “The raven stands for their mother, the queen.”
“Oh,” Seren voiced as she pulled her gift out of the paper. She held up the bolt of fabric for all to see.
I’d hoped I had the right idea, and from the look on Seren’s face I’d nailed it. I had managed to find an antique velvet in the white and gold she loved to wear around the castle, with the gold laid out in an intricate feather design.
“There are ten yards there. It should be plenty for a dress or maybe even two,” I said, and she nodded. Her hand caressed the soft velvet.
“And for Keion, the mighty warrior,” I proclaimed as I handed him the other long package. Just as his sister had, the prince carefully unwrapped it. Then, he gasped also.
“This is very nice work,” he said, running his hands along the quiver I’d bought for him. When we had ridden to the library and then to Ganolog, I noticed that Prince Charming kept his arrow stock in a fairly plain leather tube for such a grand warrior who would likely soon be king. I’d managed to find him a replacement that was a glistening black leather that had been hand-tooled in a beautiful Celtic knotwork design.
“I look forward to riding into battle beside our queen wearing this,” he said, the heat in his voice causing Momma to flush.
“For you,” I said quickly, forestalling the parental commentary that seemed to be coming. I thrust the square-ish box into Meriel’s hands.
The younger daughter unwrapped hers with the same care as her siblings had, and even before the box was completely visible Seren had snatched that wrapping paper as well to fold into a neat pile.
She pulled the crystal goblet out of its box with a pleased sound. “This is beautiful,” she observed as she held it up into the light and showed her brother and sister.
“I see the raven, but what is that building? It looks familiar.” Keion bent in to look closely.
“It should. It’s Big Ben, a London landmark near where your mother grew up. She’s told me all about it over the tea service we’ve enjoyed. I figured you might enjoy a goblet that ties you to your mother’s history.”
“Well, I thank you,” Meriel said, and actually reached over to give me a hug. “I hope you enjoy your hat as much as I will enjoy this goblet.”
“And, I got something to go in it,” I finished, reaching around and pulling out a case of Mountain Dew with a flourish. Meriel’s whole face brightened; she’d fallen in love with the green soda our first night on Earth.
We put the gifts away, and then we ate a nice breakfast. True to his promise, Dad opened the blue-labeled bottle of whiskey and started pouring jiggers. Momma sniffed at hers and muttered something about drinking hard liquor in the morning, but everyone else enjoyed a sip or two. The queen’s daughters weren’t much for it, and so I felt obliged to make a show out of tossing back the whole thing at once and then asking for another.
Dad shook his head, grinned, and poured.
Christmas dinner was the best one Momma had ever made, and I’m not just saying that because of how entertaining it was that she kept pushing her elf staffer out of the kitchen physically while Dad kept ordering him back in. Keion, Seren, Meriel and I all sat around laughing at the show.
Bless his poor heart.
Before long we had a dinner of glazed ham, yams, greens, potatoes au gratin, and fresh rolls on the table. Momma, knowing we wouldn’t be there for the actual New Year’s Day dinner, added black eyed peas and explained to all the non-Southerners how they represented luck in the coming year. The queen’s kids declared it the best food they’d ever eaten, and they sounded sincere. Dad spent the whole meal looking googly-eyes over at Momma, and she kept returning the look. It wouldn’t have surprised me if they were playing footsie under the table, but I wasn’t about to check. Still, it was a great meal to share with some people who, I had to admit, were actually starting to become almost-friends.
We drove to Old Town as the sun went down. It was where the most vibrant of light displays were. Momma actually told Callum to go away; she would be just fine, she said, piling everybody into her old car. And we were: Momma, Dad, and I sat in the long front seat of the old Buick, while the queen’s kids rode in the back. There were a ton of oohs and ahhs as we drove; the upper crust really put on a grand display of lights. Granted, it was nothing compared to what we’d seen at Rockefeller Center, but at least we didn’t have people rushing to push by on each side, and at least Keion didn’t get arrested again, bless his heart.
The trip ended in one more night of sharing a room with the two girls I’d come to despise most. Over the short visit, though, I had completely changed my mind about them. Strangely, I felt a kinship once I let the barrier fall. They had, after all, survived years in the massive spotlight within the castle, a situation I was also learning—slowly—to survive.
Something about sleeping through the night in the same room as someone, hearing their gentle snores, makes them much harder to dislike in the daylight, I guess.