Royal Test

The week goes by and I’m not sure if I want it to hurry up or slow down but regardless of my wants, the night of the full moon arrives and I’m collected by the King’s Steward (the pinch-faced man, his name is Pendred) and conducted to a back hallway. Johanna insists on accompanying me, I think to be first with the news on whether I truly am of royal blood rather than any sort of obligation to me as a cousin or companion. I ignore her.

Master Pendred receives some sort of signal from the garden beyond the door he has us waiting beside and he beckons. We follow him into the formal gardens of the palace and through an archway in the garden’s wall, taking us into the Gardens of the Sacred Spring. I’m in a deceptively simple gown of pale gold, one that bares the arms to the shoulder to better display the ruler-mark, should it appear. It’s a chilly night though, so I’ve been permitted a cloak over the top. Johanna will hold it for me when we reach the Spring Pavilion.

The soles of my soft leather slippers, also gold, are thin, and I feel the bite of the gravel path through them, along with the nip of the cool night air. At least it’s not raining. The full moon is shining unhindered by veils of cloud tonight, attended by her dancing stars. I’m sure they pay her more mind than Johanna does me.

The Pavilion is full of people when we arrive, I’m not sure why I’m surprised. I recognise the king of course, he barely glances at me before going back to a low conversation with the man by his side. I suppose I’m not surprised by the queen’s attendance; my parentage is going to have considerable impact on her fate after all. But who is the man the king is talking to? And why are all the Queen’s children there, glaring at me as if this is my fault and not their mother’s?

And the Lord Chancellor is lurking behind His Majesty, along with two high officials from the Temple. I suppose this needs proper witnessing but it’s a little disconcerting.

Thanks to this week’s lessons, I know the goblet I’m to drink from (spirits forefend we use such a thing as a mere cup) must be filled in front of all witnesses by an acolyte of the temple, to ensure nothing is added to it. I wonder what happened in the past to make that step necessary.

I slip my cloak off my shoulders and hand it to Johanna, who takes it with bad grace and promptly dumps it on a bench two steps behind her. The queen’s children snigger but my cousin doesn’t notice.

The two Temple people step forward. The older one says. “And what is your name, child?”

I’m no child, but I answer. “Arianna, Your Worship.”

He frowns at my deliberate omission of a family name but continues. “Are you prepared to sip from the waters of the Sacred Spring, and accept the obligations placed upon you as a result?”

I pretend people don’t drink from these waters all the time just to quench their thirst, and incline my head. “I am, Your Worship.”

As if I’m going to get any obligations beyond agreeing sweetly to whatever marriage plans they have for me. And I will agree sweetly to them, if and when they suit me.

Finally, the younger priest picks up a cup from a table beside the fountain at the centre of the pavilion and has the entire crowd, other than me and Johanna, inspect it. Someone clearly did something tricky in the past.

Once everyone’s happy the goblet is clean and untainted. He lifts it to the top tier of the fountain, where the water gurgles out of a pretend rocky opening in a pretend miniature hillside.

It’s filled and handed to me. I stand alone beside the fountain, the ring of watchers gazing avidly as I put the cup to my lips and drink. I don’t know how much I’m supposed to drink, so I empty the goblet, the water tastes cool and fresh.

As I lower the goblet I catch the smirk on the queen’s face, then watch it vanish because, yes, I have begun to glow. I keep my face impassive, smirking triumphantly back at the old snake would not serve me well, however satisfying it would be.

I glow brighter, the light makes it hard to see what’s going on, but I can still hear.

The king barks a laugh. “There, proof. I want a divorce, you can take your treacherous bitch of a sister home with you, Cornelius, and all her brats, they’re none of mine. Chancellor, start the search for a new queen. One who knows her duty and how to fulfil it.”

There are wails, and remonstrances, and chatters; and I close my eyes as the light overwhelms me. When I open them again, the Pavilion is empty. There is me, holding the goblet, and my cloak, thrown on a bench. I can see figures hurrying away, towards the palace, or in another direction, towards the temple, and I can hear arguments, but no one has bothered to stay, to see whether I have a ruler-mark, and if so, what it is.

I look over my arms. The underside of my right forearm is now decorated with a lily, long and graceful, in lines of silver and gold, still glowing.

I glance around, there is no one, I’ve truly been abandoned.

Fine, if they don’t care what my fate and obligations are, I’ll take them elsewhere. I put my hand to my chest, where Zarn’s key pendant lies tucked beneath the neckline of my gown. It’s there, safe, and the house is an easy enough walk from here, if a little long. I don my cloak once more, then set off towards the city entrance of the park.

The gates are locked when I arrive, of course, but I am not particularly astonished when Zarn’s key works in that lock, as well as the one in the blue door a few minutes later. I let myself in and find my way to the kitchen. No one answers when I call out, but the place feels like home. It welcomes me in a way none of my supposed family has ever done.

I light the fire and settle myself beside it.

I’m woken by frantic knocking at the front door. It’s still dark beyond the kitchen windows so I can’t have been asleep for long.

I leave the gently warming fire, pulling my cloak closer around me, and make my way toward the noise. I call out. “Who is it?”

A man’s voice, trying to sound official, succeeding in sounding worried. “Palace guard, we seek the Princess Arianna.”

A princess now, am I? That’s a bit of a change in attitude. I wonder what’s been happening at the palace.

I crack open the door and recognise the man. He’s one of the guards I’ve seen on my way between my rooms and the library in the past week, so I open it fully. He breathes out as his shoulders slump. “Thank goodness. Please come with us, Your Highness.”

It feels strange to be so addressed, and I hide my confusion in affront. “Why? They had no interest in me after I proved the king’s fertility, what do they want me for now?”

He glances at his two companions, I think I recognise one of them, then leans forward. “The girl as was Princess Rosa says you glowed silver, as well as gold, and both King Michael and Prince Cornelius of Grattamland are desirous of knowing the aspect of your ruler-mark.”

I cross my arms under my cloak and scowl. “They ran off, all of them, left me completely alone, in the dark. Why should I come running to their call now?”

The guard I don’t recognise snorts. “In truth, I’m of your opinion, Your Highness, but the claim of silver in your blood-glow made even the queen pause in her screeching. It may be worth finding out what’s got them so excited.”

The original one looks embarrassed by his own curiosity as he asks. “Do you have a ruler-mark, Your Highness?”

I smirk, how can I not? My ruler-mark is more impressive than anything recorded for the past three generations across all four Ring Kingdoms. I stick my right arm out through the gap in my cloak and turn it to show the mark, the tracery of silver and gold, still glowing even now.

All three men gasp, it’s very satisfying. The one I don’t know stares at me, open mouthed. “That’s the emblem of the High Kingdom.”

The one who’s been silent until now sniggers evilly but says nothing until I raise my brow at him. He says. “The steward and housekeeper have already relieved your companion of her duties for abandoning you in favour of spreading gossip. If you’re destined for the High Kingdom, she’s going to be wailing loud enough to be heard clear to the Barrier Mountains.”

I step back from the door. “I’ll be a minute, I can’t leave the fire burning.”

Leaving the door open, I return to the kitchen and bank the fire, then look around the dark, quiet room. One part of me would like to stay here, unbothered by selfish kings and cousins, most of me, though, is looking forward to some very satisfying conversations.

I return to the guards, hovering awkwardly on the doorstep. Stepping out, I close and lock the door behind me. I can feel their questions, held behind tight teeth. What is this house? How do I have a key? Why did I come here after the drama by the Spring? I don’t tell them.

We return to the palace through the Gardens, and I’m conducted to a large chamber with two thrones at one end, only one occupied, and a crowd of chattering people clustered around it.

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