Long May She Reign(3)

By: Rhiannon Thomas

“Well, I hope I’m not that boring,” Claire said.

“Tell us,” Sophia said, leaning forward slightly. “How is your brother, Jacob?”

“He’s—well. Thank you.”

“What a handsome young man. I suppose he’ll be finding a girl soon? Or is he enjoying life too much to settle down?”

“I don’t know,” Naomi said. “You’d have to ask him.”

“But surely, as his sister, you must have some inkling. Women’s intuition, no? Young men so rarely know what they want, but you must have a feeling—”

“What about Madeleine Wolff?” Claire said. “She’s not connected to anyone, is she? They would be a wonderful couple. Think how beautiful their children would be!”

“Yes!” Sophia said. “Is your brother close to her, Naomi? We should arrange an introduction, when she returns from her estate. Something so adorable they can’t help but fall in love.”

Naomi was saved from answering by a hush that descended on the room. The king had stood, arms swept out toward the crowd. “Before we enjoy our next course,” he said, “I’ve arranged a little entertainment.”

Other rulers probably had entertainments arranged for them on their birthday. But the king would never leave anything to chance. He had to show how extravagant and benevolent he was, and that meant planning every detail himself.

A troupe of performers ran into the hall through its rear doors. One woman backflipped her way along the hall, passing just behind my and Naomi’s chairs. She shot us a sideways grin as she went. She was followed by more acrobats, people cartwheeling, a man walking on his hands, and jugglers, too, rings flying through the air. Their outfits sparkled, catching the light as they danced, so it almost hurt to look at them.

When they reached the front of the room, they bowed to the king before continuing their performance. One of the jugglers clapped, the sound chasing through the room like thunder, and their rings seemed to transform into knives.

I looked past them to the high table. The king’s best friend, Torsten Wolff, sat two seats to the king’s left. He looked distinctly unamused. But Torsten Wolff always looked distinctly unamused. If he ever smiled, his face would probably shatter. He was much younger than the king, probably in his early twenties, but they were inseparable. It often seemed as though the king gave Sten all of his worries to carry, leaving himself as the carefree side of the pair.

For once, I felt a connection with Sten. He looked as uncomfortable as I felt.

One of the performers clapped her hands, and the juggling knives burst into flame. The court gasped and applauded as the group continued to juggle, continued to dance and contort, the flames flying through the air so fast they became a blur. More performers ran in from the sides, holding torches aloft. They threw them into the paths of the burning knives, so they caught fire, too, and then the performers bent back, faces to the ceiling, mouths open wide, as they seemed to swallow the fire.

Then they started to breathe fire, shooting streams into the air. It caught on ribbon hung across the ceiling, too thin to be visible before, and raced along it, spelling out the king’s name.

The crowd applauded again, and the king grinned. “Ah, now, our performers need a volunteer.” He glanced up and down the high table in faux contemplation. Torsten Wolff looked like he had swallowed a lemon, and I thought the king would choose him, a punishment for his lack of enthusiasm. But then: “Fitzroy! Why don’t you come up here?”

Fitzroy. Even I heard the danger in that word. William Fitzroy was the king’s bastard son, and although most people referred to him by his surname, the king’s name for him changed with his mood. He was “my son” when Fitzroy was in favor, or “William” if a name was really needed. Fitzroy was a hint of dismissal, a reminder of his place in court. A surname they invented for the bastard son, the boy who wasn’t supposed to exist.

But Fitzroy sauntered forward without hesitation. His blond hair fell across his eyes, giving him an air of casual confidence, and he was smiling, like he couldn’t wait to suffer what his father had planned.

“Whatever my adoring fans demand,” he said. People laughed, and danger flashed in the king’s eyes. The performers positioned Fitzroy in the middle of their group, and then began their show again, tossing flaming rings to one another over Fitzroy’s head, sending knives spinning inches from his arms, breathing fire so close that his hair must have been singed.

Fitzroy did not flinch. He mugged for the audience as the flames flew past, like nothing was more fun than nearly dying for everyone’s entertainment.