Long May She Reign(2)

By: Rhiannon Thomas

Even then I’d known what it meant. That something was wrong with me. That I didn’t belong.

Then my mother had died, and my strangeness had become far more concerning. An insult to her memory. An accusation: “Why can’t you be more like your mother, and less like you?”

It was fine, I told myself. Claire should have been the one embarrassed, for making such a stupid mistake about the birds. It was fine.

But whenever I tried to convince myself my worries were all imaginary, that no one judged me, I remembered every scrap of evidence I’d ever gathered to the contrary. Every time someone had sniggered after I spoke. Every sideways glance shared by friends when I approached. The moment I had walked away from Rosaline Hayes and her friends and heard them repeating my words in high-pitched, laughing voices.

I’d been reluctant to say anything to anyone after that.

At first, my father had comforted me—“Court is an odd place, but you’ll get used to it, you’ll make friends, you’ll figure it out”—but I continued to stumble, and “You’ll make friends” became “You’ll survive” became “Freya, could you at least try, for my sake?”

Five years later, I still had no place here. Or, I did, but it was sitting by the wall, practically invisible, the butt of jokes if I was mentioned at all. Awkward Freya, strange Freya, silent stuttering Freya who said rude things by accident and was so very, very plain. Did you hear she does experiments in her cellar? Did you hear she nearly burned her house to the ground? What was she even doing in court, behaving like that?

Or that’s what I assumed. No one gossiped about me in front of my face. No one said much to or about me at all.

I’d decided long ago that I didn’t care. I was going to escape this court as soon as I could. My father insisted I had to try and find a good match, to get married and play a role in court life, but no one had ever shown any interest in me. I’d never found anyone who interested me, either. As soon as my father accepted that, I’d be gone. I’d travel to the continent, perhaps, where research was taken far more seriously, and conduct my experiments there. One day soon.

Because, it turned out, I did care. I cared what people thought of me. I cared what they were saying. And I needed to get out, before their judgment changed me.

“Hi, Freya.”

I turned toward the voice, smiling. I’d only ever had one good friend, but Naomi was so wonderful that I couldn’t imagine needing anyone else. She’d been drawn to me, somehow, when she first moved to the capital with her brother, Jacob, joining me in the corner of awkwardness and pulling me into quiet conversation. We had little in common as far as interests went—she loved novels, stories, romance, and adventure, while I was much happier with equations and research—but our souls clicked.

She looked pretty tonight. She always looked pretty—not the court’s version of beauty, but something softer and sweeter. She had large brown eyes, a tiny pug nose, and ever-present dimples. Her black hair was piled in a dome on top of her head, every twist studded with a gem, and her dark skin shimmered with whichever crushed-jewel powder was currently in fashion.

“Hi,” I said. She slipped onto the chair beside me, wobbling slightly as she maneuvered her massive skirts into place.

“Should you be sitting here, Naomi?” Sophia said. “Not that we aren’t delighted to have your company, but His Majesty worked so hard on the seating arrangements . . .”

“His Majesty won’t mind if I sit here for two minutes, I don’t think,” Naomi said, although she looked down as she said it, her expression unsure. She ducked closer to me. “The people at my table are horrid,” she murmured.

“And you’re surprised?”

“I guess not. But then my brother abandoned me, so it was just me thrown to the wolves. How are you coping?”

“I’m alive. That’s something, isn’t it?”

“Here? Definitely.”

“What are you girls whispering about?” Claire said. “It’s awfully rude to have secrets, you know. We’ll be thinking you’re talking about us next.”

“We’d never gossip about you,” Naomi said. She glanced at the table again, then quickly back at Claire, correcting her gaze. “What would we even say?”

Lots of things, I thought. But Naomi probably meant it. She made fun of the court, but she was always eager to forgive the courtiers themselves for their cruelty and vanity. Every insult became a harmless misunderstanding or good people having a bad day if you allowed Naomi to sit with the story long enough.