Long May She Reign

By: Rhiannon Thomas

ONE


A HUNDRED DOVES BURST OUT OF THE PIE.

I don’t know why I was surprised. Of course there were a hundred doves in the pie. The king wouldn’t open his birthday celebration by actually feeding his guests. Not when he could amaze us all with his extravagance instead.

I just wished someone had considered what would happen to the doves after they were released. The king had skewered a couple in his enthusiasm to cut open the pastry, and the survivors were determined to get as far away from that knife-wielding maniac as possible. Many of them settled in the rafters of the banquet hall, forty feet above us. More crashed against the huge arched windows, their claws and beaks scraping the glass. One settled in the bell of a trumpet and refused to move, no matter how violently the player waved his hands.

I sank into my chair and kept watch on the doves overhead. I wasn’t afraid of them, not exactly, but I already felt on edge, with the entire court around me, with their judging eyes and vicious whispers, surrounded by gold and laughter and fountains of wine, and the doves were moving so erratically. Flapping and skittering. I knew they wouldn’t touch me, but I jumped every time they swooped either way.

If only the king would serve the first course. Then I’d be one step closer to leaving. My father usually allowed me to skip the king’s festivities—as the king’s fourth cousin once removed, I was hardly considered important—but this time my father had insisted I attend. To represent the family. To show we were people who mattered.

He couldn’t really have believed that would work. No one had spoken to me since I’d arrived. Even my father had abandoned me for “necessary business conversations” on the other side of the hall. So I sat at my table near the door, empty seats on either side of me, half wanting to join in the conversation of the people opposite, too scared to appear to be eavesdropping on them to try.

King Jorgen, for his part, looked completely relaxed, and completely unconcerned about his potentially starving guests. He lounged on his throne, legs thrown over one arm, his golden goblet full of wine, his golden plate free of food, while the golden paneling glittered on the wall behind him. He was talking to a girl about my age, whose smile was so wide that the corners might have been pinned to her cheeks.

The king raised his goblet to her lips. When she shook her head, still smiling that strained smile, he tossed the goblet over his shoulder, wine and all. “This drink does not please my lady!” he shouted. “Bring us something better.”

Queen Martha sat on his right. I’d always thought she looked like a praying mantis—tall, thin, and bug-eyed, with a ruthless personality to match. Her dress was the biggest in the room, with silk ribbon at the end of every layer like icing on a cake. Her hair reached up toward the ceiling, studded with berries. She held a peacock-feather fan in front of her mouth to hide her yawn, and pointedly avoided looking at her husband.

A dove landed next to my still-empty plate and fluffed its wings. It looked at the foodless platter, and then looked at me, as though blaming me for the lack of treats.

“I know.” I ran my fingers along the feathers at its neck. They were softer than I’d expected, and pristine white. Only the best could be baked in the king’s pies, I supposed. “I’m hungry, too.”

“Freya, what are you doing?” Sophia, the woman sitting opposite me, waved a ring-covered hand in my direction. She was in her forties, her hair a rich henna red. A black-silk moon and two stars had been stuck to her forehead, either as an affectation or to conceal any scars. “Don’t encourage it. It’s filthy.”

“Pigeons all over the tables,” Sophia’s neighbor, Claire, said. She was in her forties, too, and rather portly, with a silk heart placed to the right of her pink lips. “I suppose the pie was entertaining, but—”

“Doves,” I said, without thinking.

Claire raised a single, perfectly arched eyebrow. “What was that?”

“Doves,” I repeated, a little louder, forcing the word out. “They’re not pigeons, they’re doves.”

Claire laughed. “Oh, Freya, you are strange.” She waved carelessly at the bird. “Pigeon, dove, whatever it is. We really don’t want it on the table.”

I pulled my hand back and stared at my plate as she shooed the bird away.

People had been calling me “strange” since I learned how to talk, although usually they only said it when they thought I couldn’t hear. When I was younger, I had chattered constantly, stumbling over the words in my eagerness to express them, asking question after question until I was at least five explanations deep. People commented on my strangeness to my mother, as though she had somehow missed it and would surely take action now it was revealed to her, but she would just laugh and say, “Isn’t it wonderful?” like my strangeness was my greatest strength.