Long May She Reign(4)

By: Rhiannon Thomas


Fitzroy, I decided, was an idiot.

The performance ended, Fitzroy bowed, and his father flicked a hand to send him back to his seat without a word.

The performers departed the way they’d come, tumbling and dancing. The backflipper passed behind us again, and as she did, her foot caught on my shoulder. She didn’t pause to apologize—she probably hadn’t even noticed, so focused on her performance—but I jerked, shoved forward by her momentum, and my heart sputtered into triple time.

The conversation in the hall started again, and Sophia and Claire leaped straight back into interrogating Naomi about her brother. I couldn’t concentrate on the words. They were at once too loud and too far away to understand. My hands began to shake.

The kick had triggered something in me, the awareness that people were too close. There were too many of them, and I couldn’t leave, couldn’t escape, couldn’t do anything.

No, I thought. Not here. I was safe. I was fine.

It was too late. There were too many bodies, too much breath and too many eyes. It was so loud, so crowded, and I couldn’t leave.

No, I told myself again. I would be calm. I tugged at the pins in my hair, and looked around the room again, searching for something to ground me. The fountains of wine, the cascading flowers, the doves that still seemed confused about their inability to fly through the windows. Everything was safe. I’d be all right.

I tugged at another hairpin, my hand shaking, and it slipped free, sending a section of hair tumbling to my shoulder. I grabbed it and tried to shove it back in place.

“Freya?”

I pressed my palms against my knees, willing my hands to still. I tried to force air to the bottom of my lungs.

“Freya?” Naomi said again. “Are you all right?”

I nodded, up and down and up. The world had turned fuzzy, and all the sounds were too loud, and people were so close, even those far away seemed to loom and press toward me, and I couldn’t breathe, and—

“Come on,” Naomi said. “Let’s get some air.”

I couldn’t leave the table, it wasn’t allowed, but Naomi was already standing, not touching me, just standing and waiting, and I felt myself standing, too.

Naomi led the way to the doors at the back of the hall. They hadn’t seemed far away before, twenty feet at most, but the distance stretched out now. Everyone was watching us leave, I knew, thinking about how odd we were behaving, and my father would be watching, too, glowering . . .

The doors stood slightly open, and we stepped out into the gardens beyond. An October chill was in the air, and I gulped it in, stumbling farther from the palace. Calm. I was calm.

The world slowly came back into focus. The vast lawn had been decorated with floating lanterns and glistening ice statues, and couples walked between them, hands entwined, faces close.

The river meandered through the garden at the bottom of a slight incline, reflecting the lanterns and the stars. I staggered toward it, listening to the gurgle, looking at the lights. I was calm. I was calm.

Naomi hovered about a foot away, watching me closely. “Are you all right?”

I nodded. “Yes. Yes, I’m fine.” If I said it enough, it had to be true.

“You don’t have to be fine, you know. If you’re not.”

Naomi said that every time this happened, and I always nodded, like I actually believed her. It was one thing to be uncomfortable in court, to hate all the pretenses and be desperate to leave. It was quite another to panic, to become so frightened of the people around me that I forgot how to breathe.

But she understood. She said her father reacted the same way to court, or to anything too crowded. That was why her parents lived out in the country, while she and her brother represented the family in the capital. Whenever I panicked, she would appear beside me, ready to talk me back to reality.

She swept her thirty-six layers of skirts forward and sank onto the grass. It must have been cold, but she simply looked up at me with a smile until I settled beside her.

At least I could breathe again. The chatter and music floated through the hall’s open door, but it felt safer now, farther away.

“Want me to take your hair down?” Naomi asked.

I nodded. Naomi moved behind me and began pulling the pins loose with quick fingers. With every tug, my lungs relaxed, just a little.

“How’s the experiment going?” she said. “Any luck?”

I shook my head. I’d been working on a way to create portable heat for weeks, something that could keep your hands warm and perhaps even banish the cold from my laboratory without fire. So far, all I had for my efforts were a whole lot of notes, and a whole lot of burns.

I plucked one of the loose hairpins from the grass and began to twist it between my fingers. The diamonds gleamed. “I’ve been experimenting with different metals,” I said. “But nothing yet. I’ll figure it out.” Naomi tugged the last of my hair free, and I leaned back, falling onto the grass beside her.