Long May She Reign(9)

By: Rhiannon Thomas

“Freya!” He ran over to me and pulled me into a hug, squeezing so tightly that the breath rushed out of my lungs. “You’re alive.”

“Alive?” I scrambled to make sense of the word. “Why wouldn’t I be alive?”

“There was an attack.” He seized me by the shoulders and inspected my face. “I thought—but you’re here. You’re here. You’re safe.”

Four palace guards crowded into the laboratory behind him. They wore dark-blue coats, embroidered with the king’s three gold stars. A sword and dagger hung from each of their left hips. I stared at them, the way they clutched the hilts of their weapons. I’d never seen the guards do anything before, except stand silently behind the king, but they were alert now, ready to act.

I had to ask my father what had happened. I had to force the words out, had to know, but they got stuck somewhere in the knot that had formed at the top of my chest, and I just stared.

“Sir?” Naomi said. “What’s happened?”

My father let go of me and stared at her, like he hadn’t even realized she was there. “Naomi,” he said. “Is there anyone else here? Anyone with you?”

“No,” I said. “No, no one but us. Father, what’s going on?”

“Poison,” he said. “At the banquet. Everyone is dead, Freya. Everyone.”

The words didn’t make sense. I stepped away, the small of my back thudding against the table. Dagny butted her head against my side, and I dug my fingers into the fur around her neck. I could feel the rise and fall of her breath.

“What do you mean, everyone is dead?”

“Everyone is dead. Something was poisoned, the food or the wine . . . and it killed them. The king, the queen, the king’s brother, his nephew . . . they’re all dead.”

Cyanide could asphyxiate its victims in under ten seconds. The thought floated across my empty skull, so clinical, unwanted. Everyone was dead. Dead.

Naomi grabbed my arm to steady herself. “My brother was at the ball,” she said to my father. “Did you see him? Is he all right?”

“I don’t know,” my father said. “Several hundred are dead. Too many to know exactly who—when I couldn’t find you, Freya, I thought . . .”

I stared at him, running over the words, checking and then checking again that I’d heard correctly. It didn’t make sense. It couldn’t make sense. “But you’re alive.”

“I was lucky. I was distracted, I wasn’t eating at the feast . . .”

“So other people survived?” Naomi said. Her grip on my arm was painfully tight. “Other people are still alive?”

“Some,” my father said. “Not many. I haven’t seen your brother.”

“I have to go.” She let go of my arm. “I have to look for him.”

“I’ll go with you.” That thought, at least, made sense to me. Naomi needed help. I could help her. I clung to the idea, the clarity of it. But my father grabbed me, holding me in place.

“No. It isn’t safe, Freya. You can’t go back.”

“You said they were poisoned. So it won’t be dangerous to go back now.”

“Some are still—not everyone is dead yet, Freya. And I can’t risk you. We can’t risk you. Not now.”

“You can’t risk me? There’s no risk.” No one would ever want to attack me. “We’ll bring gloves. We won’t touch anything. It’ll be safe.”

“No, Freya!” He grabbed both of my shoulders again. “Listen. Hundreds of people died, and more are close to it. The whole line to the throne is dead.”

“So we should help those who are left!”

“Listen to me, Freya. Everyone is dead. Everyone before you. That makes you queen. You can’t go back there.”

I laughed. It wasn’t funny, not any of it, but the sound ripped out of me, the only way I could react to the ridiculousness of it. I’d seen them, alive, only a few hours before. “I can’t be queen.”

“This is not a joke, Freya.” He spoke sharply now, almost aggressively. “The first one in the line of succession to survive is you.”

“No. I’m twenty-third in line.” I was as likely to rule as Dagny was. That was why I was allowed to skip balls, why I was permitted to spend my time in the laboratory, why no one would even have noticed that I left the grounds tonight. I didn’t matter. I was nobody to them.

“Freya, listen to what I am saying. Someone wanted to destroy the court tonight. They wanted to kill the entire line to the throne, and they almost succeeded. You are the first one left.”